Hawaii Sen. Will Espero has added his name to the chorus of people urging the Honolulu Police Commission to hold off on inking a cash settlement with Police Chief Louis Kealoha, who is under federal investigation for corruption.

Espero said in a Tuesday email to the commission that giving the chief, who has said he will retire, a lump sum cash payment in addition to his regular retirement benefits does not send the right message to the community.

Kealoha is estimated to pull down about $150,000 a year from his pension alone.

Sennator Will Espero. 13 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
State Sen. Will Espero, right, has been one of the most vocal advocates for better police accountability. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The senator said the commission should instead keep Kealoha on leave with or without pay until the U.S. Justice Department investigation plays out. One former cop has already pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy, and Espero said more charges are expected for other officers who have been implicated as accomplices.

I understand the Police Commission may want to put this episode behind it and hire a new chief to start anew,” Espero said. “However, the Police Commission has been silent on this matter for over 16 months and to act so quickly at this point in time does not seem to be in the best interest of the City and County of Honolulu.”

The chief and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a city prosecutor, have been caught up in allegations of corruption and abuse of power for nearly two years.

Many of the allegations stemmed from the theft of their mailbox in 2013, a crime the Kealohas blamed on Katherine Kealoha’s estranged uncle, Gerard Puana. But Puana said he was set up so that his niece could discredit him in an ongoing lawsuit in which he claimed she stole money from him and his mother.

The criminal case against Puana was dismissed after the chief caused a mistrial while on the witness stand. The U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case then asked the FBI to investigate Puana’s claims that he had been framed.

The commission has refused to launch its own inquiry into any of Puana’s allegations, even after it became clear that the FBI had launched its own probe. At one point, commissioners even questioned whether there was a federal investigation at all.

But Espero said there are many other reasons to question Kealoha’s leadership of the Honolulu Police Department, which is the 20th largest in the country.

He said the department’s questionable handling of domestic violence cases — particularly those involving its own officers — along with its failure to properly test rape kits, track violent crime and address ongoing misconduct undercut his authority.

Espero specifically noted last year’s $4.7 million settlement to end a racial and sexual discrimination lawsuit that alleged cover-ups and systemic retaliation against officers, one of whom said she was permanently disabled after not receiving backup.

The senator attached some of the court documents from that case that he described as “eye-opening and disturbing.”

Espero closed his plea to the commission with an acknowledgement that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But he also noted that the public response to a “buyout” has been negative, and that commissioners should heed the warning signs.

“We have courts to find the truth,” Espero said. “Let the truth come out and then make your decision.”

The Honolulu Police Commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss Kealoha’s status with the department. Commission Chairman Max Sword has said any decision regarding the chief or his retirement package will be made in secret and revealed to the public after a vote is made.

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