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Several defense lawyers who specialize in drunken driving cases are hoping to use Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro’s own words against him in an attempt to beat various DUI charges that have been filed against their clients in Oahu District Court.
It’s a complex scenario that revolves around a three-year-old speeding ticket that was dismissed at the request of city prosecutors in 2014.
But the situation also touches on the ongoing federal grand jury investigation into allegations of high-level corruption and abuse of power by former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, who is one of Kaneshiro’s top deputy prosecutors.
Questions have also been raised about whether Kaneshiro himself has been fully honest about his own investigation into HPD officers he has accused of issuing fake citations as part of a scheme to collect more overtime pay.
The prosecutor’s office has recently admitted in court records that it did not have documentation that would support all of Kaneshiro’s claims.
“In a DUI case or any other criminal case, the prosecutor’s office has a great amount of credibility and power in the courtroom,” said Kevin O’Grady, who’s one of the defense attorneys trying to wade through the morass. “When a prosecutor speaks, the judge or jury takes their word at it and their word carries great weight.”
O’Grady is representing a Kailua man charged with driving under the influence while also speeding 30 miles an hour over the posted limit.
According to O’Grady, one of the Honolulu police officers involved in his client’s arrest is Ty Ah Nee, who is assigned to the Honolulu Police Department’s traffic division.
Ah Nee has become an integral player in the federal grand jury investigation into the Kealohas, who have been accused, among other things, of framing a family member in a federal criminal case so that they could gain the upper hand in a legal dispute over money.
But some defense attorneys are now wondering if Ah Nee is getting a bad rap and being unfairly dragged into the middle of an expanding corruption investigation that raises as many questions about the prosecutor’s office as it does about the police department.
On Aug. 12, 2014, Ah Nee issued a speeding ticket to Adam Wong, a 28-year-old Honolulu man who was driving 78 in a 35-mile-an-hour zone. The following month, Katherine Kealoha, who is a high-ranking supervisor in the prosecutor’s office, went to traffic court to ask a judge to dismiss Wong’s ticket.
Kealoha told the judge that Wong was not the person driving the truck, and that the driver was actually a “career criminal” who had both Wong’s driver’s license and his truck. She further told the judge that the impersonator was “in custody.”
But in March 2016, Hawaii News Now reported that the federal grand jury was investigating whether Kealoha lied to the traffic court judge to help Wong — who the TV station described as her electrician — get out of a ticket.
Kaneshiro has repeatedly defended Kealoha’s dismissal of the speeding ticket, saying he ordered her to do it. Kaneshiro’s explanation, however, has never matched the story Kealoha told the judge in 2014.
Kaneshiro, who was re-elected in November to another four-year term as Honolulu’s top prosecutor, refused requests to be interviewed for this story.
But in October he told Civil Beat that Wong’s citation was dismissed as part of a plea deal.
He said Wong was the victim of an alleged “ghost ticket” scheme in which HPD officers were believed to be issuing fake citations to motorists in an attempt to collect more overtime pay when they were called into court to testify.
“We know it happened in this particular case and we know that there might be one or two other cases.” — Keith Kaneshiro
Kaneshiro said because the motorists never actually received the ticket they wouldn’t show up to court, which would result in the case getting delayed and another opportunity for officers to come to the courthouse to testify and collect overtime.
“It’s not a pervasive problem, but it’s a problem that needed to be addressed,” Kaneshiro said. “We know it happened in this particular case and we know that there might be one or two other cases.”
There is no court record indicating Wong’s speeding ticket was dismissed as part of a plea agreement with the prosecuting attorney’s office.
Wong had also told Hawaii News Now that he had in fact received the ticket and that Katherine Kealoha told him she would take care of it.
Wong refused to talk to Civil Beat about the speeding ticket, saying only that FBI officials told him to notify them should anyone contact him about the citation.
O’Grady said Kaneshiro’s statements to the press convinced him to subpoena records from HPD, the Honolulu Police Commission and the prosecutor’s office that were related to Ah Nee’s alleged wrongdoing as well his involvement in the federal grand jury investigation.
If O’Grady could prove that Ah Nee was lying about speeding tickets he would be able to undermine the officer’s credibility in the courtroom, which might help get his client off the hook for the alleged DUI offense.
But what O’Grady got in response to his subpoenas was surprising.
All three agencies told him that they didn’t have any documents indicating Ah Nee was ever investigated for issuing ghost tickets. In fact, it seemed they were telling O’Grady that Ah Nee had a spotless record.
“I issued subpoenas to the Honolulu Police Department, the police commission and the prosecutor’s office,” O’Grady said. “I got three responses back that said there are no documents, which is very curious indeed.”
But O’Grady isn’t alone. At least two other defense lawyers are seeking documents related to Ah Nee’s alleged wrongdoing.
Last month, Honolulu attorney Kenneth Shimozono was successful in getting a DUI case dismissed after city prosecutors failed to turn over records related to Ah Nee’s alleged issuance of fake speeding tickets.
Shimozono was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but he has said he did not want to discuss the case until after a 30-day window for prosecutors to refile the case against his client has closed.
Attorney Jonathan Burge, who is a former HPD officer, is also pushing the courts to compel city prosecutors to turn over documents related to Ah Nee in a DUI case he’s handling.
In recent court filings, Burge referenced Kaneshiro’s statements to Civil Beat regarding his office’s investigation into ghost tickets, and argued that the law requires the prosecution to turn over any exculpatory evidence that could help prove his client’s innocence, including materials that might indicate Ah Nee’s credibility is suspect.
Burge told Civil Beat in an email that the prosecutor’s office has never given him any information that would indicate Ah Nee was involved in issuing fake citations. He said that if such materials exist that prosecutors have a “constitutional and ethical duty” to turn it over to the defense.
“The prosecutors have never given me an answer on Ah Nee,” Burge said. “If they would just say on the record that they checked with Kaneshiro and there is nothing I would be fine with that. However, no one from their office has told me that on the record.”
Burge added that if no documentation exists then it puts Kaneshiro in a precarious position.
“If there was never an investigation into Ah Nee, Kaneshiro may have slandered the officer,” Burge said. “He may be subject to a lawsuit from the officer, if the statements were not true. … Kaneshiro also testified before the federal grand jury. If he said that there was a ghost tag investigation at the grand jury, and there was not, the feds will likely indict him for perjury.”
Although Kaneshiro refused to be interviewed, his spokesman Chuck Parker said that his boss has never identified a specific officer as “being someone who has written ghost tickets.”
But Kaneshiro’s previous interview with Civil Beat contradicts that statement.
Parker also clarified that Kaneshiro’s description of a plea deal with Wong should have been described by the prosecutor as a “cooperation agreement.” Plea agreements are typically public record. But Parker said cooperation agreements are not public until a case is completed.
Kaneshiro’s office refused a request by Civil Beat to provide even a redacted version of the cooperation agreement to support the prosecutor’s stance.
Katherine Kealoha also refused to comment, telling Civil Beat through Parker that she cannot discuss an ongoing investigation.
HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu, however, issued a one-sentence written statement:
Ah Nee did not respond to Civil Beat’s requests for comment.