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Acting Honolulu Police Chief Cary Okimoto may face uncomfortable questions come January as he attempts to explain to police commissioners his proximity to a growing scandal involving a missing mailbox.
On Tuesday, Okimoto took over the nation’s 20th-largest police department after his boss, Chief Louis Kealoha, voluntarily went on paid leave as a federal grand jury continues to investigate him and his wife regarding allegations off corruption and abuse of power.
The Honolulu Police Commission, which has the authority to fire the chief, meets Jan. 4.
Okimoto is closely tied to some of the allegations that have already resulted in one former police officer pleading guilty to a felony conspiracy charge.
The Kealohas have been accused of framing Gerard Puana, the estranged uncle of the chief’s wife, Katherine, for the theft of their mailbox in 2013. Katherine Kealoha is a city prosecutor and a supervisor in the career criminal division. She and Puana have been locked in a bitter family dispute over money for several years.
Last week, retired HPD Officer Niall Silva, who worked in the department’s clandestine Criminal Intelligence Unit, admitted in federal court that he and five unnamed co-conspirators — four of them fellow cops — worked alongside “Co-conspirator No. 1,” who police records show is Katherine Kealoha, to frame Puana for the mailbox theft.
“There are two issues: One is whether criminal activity actually occurred at the Honolulu Police Department, and two is whether the public will be comfortable with an interim chief who appears to have been in Chief Kealoha’s inner circle.” — Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan
In 2013, Okimoto was the major in charge of the patrol district that oversaw the elite unit of police officers who investigated and arrested Puana. He’s also been called to testify before the federal grand jury that’s been empaneled by the U.S. Justice Department as part of its criminal investigation into the Kealohas and other members of Honolulu’s law enforcement community.
Puana’s criminal defense attorney, Alexander Silvert, said this week that Okimoto’s ties to the mailbox case should worry the Police Commission, especially as its members — most of whom have been full-throated supporters of Kealoha — grapple with how to repair the department’s reputation.
“It’s none of my business who is appointed chief of police by the Police Commission,” said Silvert, a federal public defender. “However, I find it disturbing that an individual who may have some role in some way with this case could be considered for that position without a serious investigation into his conduct and involvement.”
Okimoto was a major in command of HPD District 6, which covers Waikiki, from February 2013 to August 2014. Silvert said the crime reduction unit from that district was heavily involved in the investigation, secret surveillance and arrest of Puana for the mailbox theft, despite the fact that the alleged crime occurred in Kahala, part of HPD District 7.
Puana was also arrested outside Distsrict 6. He was taken into custody June 29, 2013, in a church parking lot on Kaheka Street, which is in District 1.
Each patrol district on Oahu has a crime reduction unit, or CRU as it’s commonly known. Each CRU (pronounced “crew”) has about 10 officers, mostly plainclothes, who target street crimes, such as robbery, burglary and patterned car break-ins. But the units can also conduct surveillance or assist in high-profile crimes.
In the mailbox case, police records show there were at least eight officers involved in the investigation and arrest of Puana, including Dru Akagi, a homicide detective in HPD’s Criminal Investigation Division who had been assigned by Lt. Walter Calistro.
Silvert also noted that the two sergeants in charge of the Waikiki CRU that arrested Puana — Michael Cusumano and John Haina — were both on the board of directors of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the statewide police union that had backed Kealoha’s bid for chief in 2009.
Given the scope of the federal investigation and the allegations that have come out so far — that several officers worked in concert to put an innocent man in jail to help settle a personal score for their boss and his wife — Silvert said the Police Commission needs to start taking its responsibilities more seriously.
Silvert has criticized the commission in the past for being weak and ineffective in its handling of the mailbox case. He said it should not follow the same tack with Okimoto, who he believes deserves a thorough vetting, especially if he’s going to be in charge of HPD.
Silvert said that Okimoto’s proximity to his client’s arrest needs to be explored by the commission, an independent oversight agency.
“From what I think, questions have to be asked about what he knew, when he knew it and, if he didn’t know it, why he didn’t,” Silvert said. “They are responsible questions. They are pertinent questions. They need to be answered, and the commission needs to be satisfied with the answers. More importantly, the commission needs to look at documents to (validate) those answers. I’m tired of the commission simply talking to people and taking their word. That’s not what a thorough investigation implies.”
Silvert added that during his own investigation of the mailbox theft — the evidence of which he ultimately turned over to the FBI — he did not find any information that directly implicated Okimoto in any wrongdoing.
Okimoto declined a Civil Beat interview request to discuss his involvement in the mailbox case. During a press conference Tuesday to announce Kealoha’s leave, Okimoto acknowledged that he was the major in Waikiki who oversaw the CRU unit that ultimately arrested Puana.
Asked if he was aware that his unit, which he was ultimately in charge of, had in fact arrested Puana, Okimoto said he was “not sure.”
Okimoto added that he did not have any discussions with the chief about the allegations involving the mailbox theft or the alleged framing of Puana that Silva pleaded guilty to last week.
“The key point here is that he did not get a target letter.” — Police Commission Chairman Max Sword, referring to Okimoto
Okimoto refused to discuss any of his testimony before the grand jury and told the media that he had not been served with a Justice Department target letter, similar to the one Kealoha and other officers received, indicating they are suspected of committing crimes.
Should he receive a target letter, Okimoto said, “I would have to step down.”
Okimoto has 32 years of experience with HPD. He was promoted to deputy chief Oct. 1, 2015 to replace Dave Kajihiro, who retired after 30 years with the department. As deputy chief, Okimoto was assigned to oversee the HPD’s administrative operations, which include training, finance, communications and the professional standards office, which is formerly known as the internal affairs division.
When Okimoto became deputy chief, it was his second promotion of the year. In April 2015, Okimoto was promoted from major to assistant chief.
Police Commission Chairman Max Sword did not respond to a Civil Beat request for comment about Okimoto. But at Tuesday’s press conference, he said Okimoto’s connection to the ongoing investigation, at least as a grand jury witness, does not preclude him from running the department.
“The key point here is that he did not get a target letter,” Sword said.
Honolulu Managing Director Roy Amemiya, who was serving as acting mayor for vacationing Kirk Caldwell, said that the administration has “full confidence” in Okimoto to run the department while the Police Commission determines what comes next.
But Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan said she has a number of concerns about Okimoto’s appointment, some of which echo Silvert’s own worries about the acting chief. Sheehan made clear, as she’s required to under Police Commission rules, that her views don’t represent those of her colleagues or the agency as a whole.
Sheehan said commissioners should be “very cautious” given Okimoto’s close relationship to the chief, especially considering the fact that Kealoha had twice promoted Okimoto within the department. She also wants him to explain what involvement, if any, he had in the Puana case.
“The alleged crime happened in District 7, the arrest occurred eight days later in District 1, so I’d like to know why District 6 officers were involved in the surveillance and arrest of Mr. Puana and what Cary Okimoto knows about that,” Sheehan said. “There are two issues: One is whether criminal activity actually occurred at the Honolulu Police Department, and two is whether the public will be comfortable with an interim chief who appears to have been in Chief Kealoha’s inner circle.”
Whether Okimoto will answer these questions in a public forum remains to be seen. Police commissioners tend to hold most of their discussions behind closed doors in executive session. There’s no indication so far that the Jan. 4 meeting will be any different.
In addition to the chief, at least four other police officers have received target letters from the Department of Justice. The department, which has a history of shielding the identity of officers accused of wrongdoing, has refused to identify them.
“There are sensitive matters that should be discussed in executive session, and I think they are frequently intermingled with topics that should be discussed in open session,” Sheehan said. “I think it’s going to be difficult to navigate having that conversation when parts of it should be public and parts of it should be private.”