Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha may have agreed to retire amid a growing corruption scandal that has embroiled his family and tarnished the reputation of his department.

But he’s far from off the hook.

The chief and a number of other Honolulu police officers are still the targets of a federal corruption and conspiracy investigation that has shown no sign of going away.

Moreover, the investigation is bigger than just a missing mailbox, according to Alexander Silvert, the federal public defender who first uncovered evidence of wrongdoing that prompted the FBI to take action.

Federal Public Defender Alexander Silvert speaks to media after retired HPD officer guilty plea at Federal Court. 16 dec 2016
Federal Defender Alexander Silvert, left, says that the public should be prepared to hear a lot more about the alleged corruption happening in HPD and other law enforcement agencies. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The plea of guilty by Silva and the removal of the chief by the police commission is the tip of the iceberg,” Silvert said Saturday, referring to retired Honolulu officer Niall Silva, who is cooperating with federal investigators. “The grand jury investigation and the evidence we turned over is so much more far-reaching than what has come out to date.”

“There is a long way to go and a lot more that has yet to come out that involves HPD and that involves other officials in other departments of the city and county,” Silvert says. “We are only in the beginning stages of what’s going to be a long, messy, ugly part of Hawaiian law enforcement history.”

Kealoha’s somewhat abrupt decision to retire comes after he’s insisted for months that he had done nothing wrong and will fight the accusations.

“We are only in the beginning stages of what’s going to be a long, messy, ugly part of Hawaiian law enforcement history.” — First Assistant Federal Defender Alexander Silvert

But last week, the chairman of the Honolulu Police Commission announced after a series of closed-door meetings that Kealoha would retire. Negotiations to finalize the retirement package are expected to begin soon, also in secret.

Last month, Kealoha received a letter from the FBI telling him that he’s the target of an ongoing grand jury investigation that’s looking into allegations of public corruption stemming from the theft of his mailbox in June 2013.

At least four other police officers also have received U.S. Justice Department target letters notifying them that the grand jury has substantial evidence linking them to crimes. Those officers have been placed on restricted duty but have yet to face criminal or administrative penalties for their alleged involvement in the corruption probe.

One former cop, Silva, who worked in HPD’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, has already pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy for his involvement in the mailbox case.

Silva said he and several other co-conspirators, including four HPD officers and an individual believed to be Katherine Kealoha — the chief’s wife and a top city prosecutor — worked to frame her uncle, Gerard Puana, for stealing the mailbox to gain the upper hand in a long-standing family feud over money.

Silva has agreed to work with federal prosecutors as they pursue additional charges against the other co-conspirators, none of whom were named in court records.

What Else Is Going On?

Silvert represented Puana in the mailbox case and found documents that he said showed the cops framed his client.

Silvert says he’s uncovered a lot more evidence of wrongdoing that he has since shared with federal investigators who have been working for nearly two years to piece it all together.

Silvert has continued to cooperate with federal investigators, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat, the special prosecutor from San Diego who is leading the grand jury investigation.

HPD Chief Louis Kealoha at HART train opening. 2 may 2016.
HPD Chief Louis Kealoha has said he and his wife are innocent of wrongdoing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In addition to sharing information about the mailbox case, Silvert has provided the federal government with evidence that indicates Puana was being set up for a second crime he didn’t commit, this time involving allegations that he broke in to the Kealohas’ garage and smashed a tail light on one of their vehicles.

“Given how detailed the Silva plea agreement was, I expect that when and if indictments come out from the grand jury that, ultimately, those indictments will be very detailed,” Silvert told Civil Beat. “The public will really have an understanding of what they’ve been investigating and the corruption they’ve uncovered.”

Silvert refused to discuss the specifics of what information he has handed over to the federal government. He would only say that he has continued to communicate with Wheat.

Kealoha remains on the payroll of the Honolulu Police Department while the police commission works out the retirement deal.

Honolulu Police Commission Chairman Max Sword has said that the details of Kealoha’s retirement deal will eventually be made public, but only after it has been approved by Kealoha, the commission and city attorneys. That means that even if citizens don’t like the terms that the city and Kealoha agree to there likely won’t be much opportunity to gripe about it.

It’s also unclear whether Kealoha’s retirement deal can be modified or rescinded should he be charged as part of the grand jury investigation.

Kealoha’s criminal defense attorney, Myles Breiner, said he met with the chief Sunday afternoon. After that meeting, Breiner told Civil Beat via text message that the negotiations with the police commission were ongoing. He did not provide specifics.

“The issue is not simply the Chief’s pension,” Breiner said. “Rather the issue is how the newly constituted police commission characterizes the Chief’s departure. Once that is resolved then all parties can move forward.”

Other Threads Still To Unravel

Katherine Kealoha, on the other hand, is still very much a key employee at the Honolulu prosecuting attorney’s office. Her boss, Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, was recently elected to another four-year term as Oahu’s top prosecutor.

Kaneshiro has been one of Katherine Kealoha’s most ardent defenders and a vocal critic of Wheat and how he has handled the grand jury investigation. Kaneshiro recently reassigned Kealoha, who was a supervisor in the career criminal division, to another high-profile position running a new intelligence-based prosecution unit.

It’s also unclear whether Kealoha’s retirement deal can be modified or rescinded should he be charged as part of the grand jury investigation.

The charging documents that laid out the conspiracy allegations Silva pleaded guilty to in federal court last month indicate Katherine Kealoha is considered to be “Co-conspirator No. 1” although she is not named in the records.

Besides the criminal investigation swirling around the Kealohas, they also are involved in a number of lawsuits, including one they filed against the Honolulu Ethics Commission for “unfounded, vindictive, unsubstantiated and illegal investigations” that targeted them. That case is still ongoing, as are several others in which the chief is named as a defendant.

Katherine Kealoha has a new job leading an intelligence-based prosecution unit that will target specific criminals. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The city has already authorized spending up to $450,000 on outside attorneys to represent the chief and others to avoid conflicts of interests from the Kealaohas’ legal actions. That price tag could increase depending on how long the cases drag out.

Puana has also filed a federal lawsuit against the Kealohas and several other current and former HPD officers alleging they abused their law enforcement powers and were involved in “racketeering activity” that caused him to be wrongfully arrested, jailed and prosecuted.

The other defendants in the case include Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, Daniel Sellers, Walter Calistro, Dru Akagi and Silva.

“One begins to wonder how deep the corruption really runs,” said Aaron Hunger, a former police officer and now a doctoral researcher in the University of Hawaii Manoa political science department. “If the chief gets a target letter they’re asking him to make a deal. Clearly, they’re saying there’s a bigger fish in the pan.”

Hunger has spent past several years studying officer misconduct at HPD as part of his post-graduate work. He testified before the commission last week that his research showed Kealoha’s “weak leadership” has created a culture inside HPD that is tolerant of bad actors.

He told Civil Beat on Saturday that the the public should be concerned about the controversy involving the Kealohas and HPD, not only because allegations of corruption go well beyond mailbox theft. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of taxpayer dollars are also at stake with the various lawsuits and legal actions currently underway.

“This problem is deeply rooted,” Hunger said. “But it’s treated as normal when in fact it’s not normal. The public should understand what is normal and what is abnormal. This is abnormal behavior.”

How Did We Get Here?

The Kealohas’ potential legal troubles first came to light in the fall of 2014. At the time, Katherine Kealoha was locked in a bitter family dispute with Puana and his 95-year-old mother, Florence, over hundreds of thousands of dollars they claimed Katherine had stolen from them as part of a complex reverse mortgage deal.

The Puanas had filed a lawsuit against Katherine Kealoha in March 2013, alleging she committed fraud and elder abuse. Those allegations were particularly serious, especially considering Kealoha is a licensed attorney working as a city prosecutor who was in charge of taking down career criminals.

In June 2013, the Kealohas reported that someone had stolen their mailbox. They said Gerard Puana was the culprit. They even had surveillance footage from their house to back it up. Puana was eventually arrested and charged with a destroying a mailbox, a federal crime that carried a maximum penalty of three years in prison.

“I would assume that we will be looking far and wide, not only within the department, but also outside the department to get the best possible person.” — Commissioner Steven Levinson

But Silvert said that his client was set up. Puana was not the man in the surveillance video. In fact, Silvert would eventually argue in court that Honolulu police officers had worked to falsify reports and mishandle evidence to make it seem like Puana was the thief.

The motive, Silvert said, was to help Katherine Kealoha win the lawsuit the Puanas had filed against her. But there were also serious questions about the HPD resources that were assigned to the case to investigate Puana, including several members of the department’s elite criminal intelligence and crime reduction units.

Puana’s criminal case went to trial in December 2014. But a federal judge declared a mistrial after Louis Kealoha took the witness stand and inappropriately revealed details about Puana’s criminal past, something that’s not typically allowed because it might taint jurors’ opinions about a defendant who is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Silvert wanted to question Kealoha about his testimony — which the judge described as a “rogue” response — to find out if the chief had intentionally tried to cause the mistrial. Silvert’s request was denied.

After the case was dismissed, Silvert called on the Honolulu Police Commission and Honolulu Ethics Commission to conduct their own investigations into the allegations he brought up during the trial. He also met with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which had been pursuing charges against Puana, to share evidence that he said proved that his client had been framed.

HPD Commissioner Loretta Sheehan Judge Steven Levinson outside Federal Court. 16 dec 2016
Honolulu police commissioners Loretta Sheehan and Steven Levinson have been the most vocal members of an oversight agency known for staying closely guarded. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Federal prosecutors declined to pursue the charges against Puana and forwarded the case to the FBI for further investigation.

The Honolulu Police Commission, meanwhile, decided not to do its own investigation even as it became clear that the U.S. Justice Department was expanding its probe to include additional allegations of public corruption beyond what came out during the mailbox case.

Instead, the commission gave Kealoha high marks in an annual evaluation released in March. The commission said Kealoha’s performance as the top administrator of one of the largest police agencies in the country “exceeds expectations.”

Picking A New Chief

Police commissioners will once again be put on the spot if Kealoha accepts their retirement offer because they’ll have to go through the process of finding a new chief of police.

Commissioner Steven Levinson, a former associate justice with Hawaii Supreme Court, said it’s too soon to know who the next chief might be, but he did say he anticipates that those discussions will begin after Kealoha’s retirement package is finalized.

“Once there is an official vacancy then we will begin the process of replacing the chief,” Levinson said. “I would assume that we will be looking far and wide, not only within the department, but also outside the department to get the best possible person.”

“When you reach a crisis point, every organization needs to ask itself how did we get here and how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again.” — Commissioner Loretta Sheehan

Commissioner Loretta Sheehan is a former prosecutor, who has been the most outspoken member of the police oversight agency since her appointment in June. She said that it’s clear to her that more bad news is on the way.

She also said that the chief’s pending retirement shouldn’t be looked at as a comforting salve for the deep wounds HPD has suffered. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

“When you reach a crisis point, every organization needs to ask itself how did we get here and how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Sheehan said, adding that it would behoove the commission to reach out to people like Hunger to get a better sense of how to improve moving forward.

“I want to know what is the latest research in effective law enforcement,” she said. “I think all across America the old way doesn’t work and we have to be open to new ideas.”

The Honolulu Police Commission is scheduled to meet again on Jan. 18. At that time, the commission is expected to announce the details of Kealoha’s retirement.

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