Don’t cut the deal, at least not yet.
That’s the message Honolulu City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine had Tuesday for the Honolulu Police Commission, which is considering a lucrative retirement package for Police Chief Louis Kealoha. He is the target of a corruption investigation that has already resulted in one former officer pleading guilty to conspiracy.
Pine and several other members of the City Council public safety committee questioned police commission Chairman Max Sword about Kealoha’s pending settlement agreement, which is expected to be finalized during a closed-door meeting Jan. 18.
Sword declined to answer most of the council members’ inquiries — even the most basic, such as where the money will come from and will the council get the opportunity to review and approve the payment. He apologized and promised more information would be available soon.
Pine and others were clearly dissatisfied with Sword’s answers.
“I’m very leery,” Pine said. “A lot of people that I’ve spoken to would disapprove of any additional payout to the police chief, in addition to what he already has a right to based on our hiring laws. It just would seem unfair to a lot of constituents who already feel that they’re spending a lot of their tax dollars on these multiple legal challenges and multiple different lawyers that we’re having to pay for.”
Kealoha, who has been employed by the Honolulu Police Department for 33 years, earns more than $180,000 a year in salary. If he retires, it’s estimated he could earn about $150,000 a year through his pension in addition to other retirement benefits that would help pay for his health care.
But police commissioners are also considering giving Kealoha a cash settlement on top of his basic retirement package. They have refused to say how much that will be until they finalize the agreement, which Sword said will happen in secret, executive session proceedings.
An indemnification agreement is also expected to be a part of the deal to prevent future legal actions the chief could otherwise take once he departs city employment. It’s still unclear how the settlement, if approved, will impact other litigation involving Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor who is also part of the federal corruption probe.
The Kealohas have sued the Honolulu Ethics Commission, saying it unfairly targeted them. City officials have since approved more than $450,000 to hire outside attorneys to help deal with the resulting conflicts of interest, and that figure could rise depending on how long the legal wrangling goes on.
Sword said he couldn’t discuss personnel issues involving the chief because of the ongoing negotiations. He also refused to comment on the process for selecting a new chief should Kealoha accept his retirement deal.
“I hesitate only because we haven’t come to any type of resolution with the current chief,” Sword said. “I would refrain from saying anything because we have to get through this first hurdle.”
Councilman Trevor Ozawa suggested that the police commission and the council meet in executive session before a deal is made.
“It is very personal, so I know that we don’t want to talk about certain things,” Ozawa said. “We have questions and we don’t want to be judgmental ourselves before we know the facts.”
But even if council members wanted to meet behind closed doors with the police commission, it’s uncertain whether a meeting could be scheduled before a deal is completed.
Sword said after Tuesday’s meeting he’s still trying to get clarification on the matter from city attorneys. He also said he needs to talk with his colleagues to see if they’re interested in meeting with the council.
Council Chairman Ron Menor, who is also the head of the Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee, said he too needs to consult with city attorneys to find out what options are available. He said the council needs to be careful about how it proceeds because Kealoha’s future is a personnel matter under the purview of the police commission, which is the sole entity charged with hiring and firing a chief.
Menor noted that at this point there’s been no official finding of wrongdoing on the part of the chief, and said that the police commissioners must consider that fact when determining the appropriate level of compensation for Kealoha.
“I understand the public’s concern,” Menor said. “That’s why I’ve indicated that I thought that the police chief made the right decision in regards to his decision to retire. As far as where we go from here in terms of the retirement that he will be able to collect and other issues relating to him, you really are talking about personnel matters that involve sensitive legal issues
“We’re here to represent the public, and it’s very concerning that they’re doing this backroom deal right now and they’re going to vote on it and nobody has a say until it’s done.” — Councilwoman Kymberly Pine
Pine said after Tuesday’s meeting that she and some other council members are searching for ways to postpone the upcoming vote on Kealoha’s retirement deal, or at least get an audience with the police commissioners before they approve a payout.
She said she would prefer that Kealoha remain on paid leave until the federal investigation is complete.
Pine criticized the police commission for how it’s handled the matter.
“I think this whole process has prohibited the public as well as council member involvement,” Pine said. “We’re here to represent the public, and it’s very concerning that they’re doing this backroom deal right now and they’re going to vote on it and nobody has a say until it’s done. There’s something very wrong with that.”
Pine said she feels the chief and his attorneys are pressuring the police commission by threatening more legal action should it move to fire him. She said that city officials should not bow to such pressure, particularly when it involves allegations as serious as the ones facing the chief and others.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he did not want to discuss the police chief issue until he had an opportunity to speak with Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, the city’s top attorney.
“I’ll address it after there’s something to address,” Caldwell said. “It is concerning.”
The mayor has taken a hands-off approach with the police commission and its dealings with Kealoha ever since it became apparent two years ago that the chief, his wife and several officers in his department were the subject of an FBI investigation.
When the commission announced Kealoha would be retiring, Caldwell issued a statement thanking the chief for his service. He also praised the commission for taking “decisive action,” saying that he believed it was the right decision to accept Kealoha’s retirement.
It’s unclear if Caldwell knew the proposed terms of Kealoha’s retirement deal at that time.