Former Police Chief Louis Kealoha is threatening to complain to the Honolulu Ethics Commission about Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan if she doesn’t disqualify herself from an upcoming vote.
Commissioners will be deciding if taxpayers will pay for Kealoha’s legal defense in a lawsuit filed against him, his wife and several police officers accused of corruption.
The ex-chief has asked the Police Commission to pay for his attorneys, a benefit afforded to all officers who are sued or charged with a crime.
Sheehan is one of the most outspoken police commissioners, and didn’t hesitate to put Kealoha on the spot about alleged departmental misconduct. She’s also the only commissioner to vote against a retirement deal for Kealoha that included a $250,000 cash payout in exchange for him leaving the department.
The commission planned to hold a hearing this month to decide whether Kealoha qualified for legal representation under state law. But on April 18, Kealoha’s attorney, Kevin Sumida, sent a letter to the commissioners telling them that Sheehan was biased against the former chief and should be removed from the decision-making process.
Sumida said he also had concerns that Sheehan would violate Kealoha’s “Garrity rights,” which would protect the former chief from incriminating himself.
“It is clear from her past conduct that she cannot be neutral or unbiased in this matter, Sumida wrote to the commissioners. “In addition, given the prior evidence that she is communicating, probably improperly, with federal investigators, her disqualification is required to assure that our clients’ Garrity rights will be respected.
“If she will not so do, we will file a formal ethics complaint against her and the Honolulu Police Commission.”
Garrity rights are named for a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Garrity v. New Jersey. In that case, several police officers were accused of fixing traffic tickets. Investigators told the officers that any statements they made could be used against them in court. They also said that if the officers chose not to give any statements that they could be fired.
The Supreme Court ruled that this amounted to, in essence, coercion by the government. Ever since, Garrity rights have protected public employees from being compelled to incriminate themselves.
Kealoha has been under federal investigation for nearly two years based in part on allegations that he and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a city prosecutor, framed her uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft of their mailbox so that they could gain the upper hand in a family dispute over money.
Several other officers have been accused of taking part, and one has already pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges. He agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Justice Department investigation.
Puana has since sued the Kealohas and several HPD officers, saying he was the victim of abusive police tactics and prosecutorial misconduct. The lawsuit also includes claims of racketeering and civil rights violations.
On Wednesday, Sheehan, who is a former assistant U.S. attorney, addressed Sumida’s letter during a Honolulu Police Commission meeting. She and her colleagues decided that they would ask Sumida to detail his complaints in an official motion that they can then consider.
The commission also decided that it would seek an opinion from the Honolulu Ethics Commission on whether Sumida’s challenge has any merit.
“I don’t, frankly, think he has a leg to stand on,” Sheehan said.
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