- Special Projects
A U.S. Justice Department investigation into alleged corruption and abuse of power in Hawaii law enforcement has expanded to include a look at a property deal associated with a much-touted safe haven for victimized women created by Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro.
The Honolulu Prosecutor’s Safe House is a Makiki neighborhood apartment complex that opened last year as a refuge for victims of domestic violence, sex assault and sex trafficking who want to testify against their abusers in court. (It was previously known as the Family Justice Center.)
The city’s purchase of that property in January 2015 from Donna Walden, a politically active real estate investor, is now part of a broader inquiry by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat.
Last week, Wheat summoned several people associated with the Safe House property to testify before a federal grand jury at the U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
Among the witnesses were Pamela Tamashiro, former director of the Safe House; Wendy Imamura, who is the city’s purchasing administrator; and Wesley Nakamura, the president of Okada Trucking, the company that sold the property to Walden in 2013.
Tamashiro told Civil Beat that Wheat asked her a number of questions about the city’s purchase of the Safe House property. He also questioned her in detail about her interactions with Walden leading up to the sale agreement.
Walden and her partners purchased the property at the end of 2013 for $4.5 million, then completed the sale a year later to the city for $5.5 million. Wheat asked whether she thought there was anything peculiar with Walden and her fellow investors turning a $1 million profit in a seemingly short time frame, she said.
Tamashiro said she told Wheat that she considered the profit, which equates to about a 20 percent return on investment, as “lucky.”
Imamura and Nakamura, who entered the courthouse flanked by their attorneys, declined to discuss their testimony with Civil Beat.
Kaneshiro also refused to discuss the grand jury proceedings, saying through his spokesman Chuck Parker on Tuesday that he had “nothing more to add.”
Wheat also declined to comment on the investigation.
Wheat and his team of investigators are looking into suspected criminal activity within the Honolulu Police Department and the city prosecutor’s office.
Their work began nearly two years ago after allegations surfaced that former HPD chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a city prosecutor, conspired with several police officers to frame a family member to settle a personal score over money.
Since then the investigation has ballooned to include other allegations of wrongdoing, including those related to an alleged ticket scandal involving Kaneshiro’s office and HPD.
Civil Beat has been looking into the property deal surrounding the Safe House for several weeks, including discussing it with Kaneshiro, Walden and others. The appearance before the grand jury of Tamashiro and the other witnesses confirmed that the transaction has become part of the federal investigation.
Tamashiro said she testified that she first met Walden on Dec. 9, 2013 and toured the Safe House property the following day.
Walden and her fellow investors didn’t officially buy the building until Dec. 26, 2013, according to city property tax records. Tamashiro told Civil Beat that she had no idea Walden did not own the property at the time.
“My instructions were to purchase the building,” Tamashiro said. “Keith made the decision to buy it. He told me to buy the property and then he walked away, so I had to do everything.”
According to documents obtained by Civil Beat through a public records request, city officials relied on Walden’s own appraisal to verify that the $5.5 million purchase price seemed reasonable.
She said Kaneshiro is the one who brought the Makiki apartment complex to her attention, but she didn’t have more details beyond that.
She said it appeared Walden was the one who approached Kaneshiro about the sale. “What I was told is she did it out of the goodness of her heart,” Tamashiro said.
Tamashiro retired from the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in November 2016 after spearheading the city’s efforts to open the Safe House, initially known as the Family Justice Center.
Tamashiro, who is a former deputy prosecutor, was in charge of executing Kaneshiro’s vision for the Safe House. Nonetheless, she said she often found herself left out of important decision-making meetings.
She said she had concerns with how Kaneshiro had modeled the facility after a witness protection program or a prison rather than as a resource for victims seeking to escape their abusers. Her concerns have been echoed by local and national experts alike.
“I didn’t sign up to be a corrections officer or a warden and work in conditions like that,” Tamashiro said. “It was just not a good fit for me any longer. I didn’t want to be in that kind of environment.”
The Safe House opened on Sept. 22, 2016 with great fanfare at an event that included a Hawaiian blessing ceremony.
Top city officials, including Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Kaneshiro and City Council member Ann Kobayashi, who was the chair the budget committee, thanked Walden for her support and persistence in making the project possible.
“At a time when everyone is critical of politicians, critical of law enforcement, I think this project exemplifies the good things that politicians and law enforcement have done,” Kaneshiro told the gathering.
Walden was the driving force behind the sale, he said. She could have made more money selling the property to other investors, he said, but instead she decided to help victims of domestic violence. He added that the city made the purchase at “fair market value.”
“I want to thank you again, Donna, I want to thank you for that,” Kaneshiro said. “And I can’t say again how much support you’ve given us.”
Caldwell, too, lauded Walden’s efforts, recounting a story about how she, a “very persistent, stubborn woman,” called him directly to make sure the sale went through.
“She was with the prosecutor trying to make sure that we did this and we did it timely,” Caldwell said. “Unusual to find a property owner who cared that much. I think she realizes how important it is to a community like ours to have a place where people can be safe.”
Walden is a well-known real estate investor in Hawaii, who often partners with her husband, Brian Sakamaki, and San Francisco-based hotel owner, Giampaolo “Paul” Boschetti, when buying property on the islands.
The trio has grabbed headlines over the years for some of their purchases, including the HASR Bistro restaurant property in Chinatown for $2.5 million. Walden and Sakamaki also purchased the former KGMB-TV building for $12 million in 2008.
Walden and Sakamaki are also active campaign donors.
Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission records show that Walden and Sakamaki, both as individuals and through their businesses, have donated nearly $100,000 to political candidates since 2006.
The largest share of that — about $12,000 — went to Caldwell’s campaign. Kaneshiro also received more than $9,000 from the couple. They also donated $8,000 to Franklin “Don” Pacarro Jr., who was one of Kaneshiro’s opponents in 2010.
In 2007, the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office charged Walden with 18 criminal counts related to filing late and false tax statements with the state. According to court records, Walden was accused of underreporting her income over several years by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
She eventually negotiated a deferred acceptance of guilty plea. She agreed to pay nearly $42,000 in restitution to the state tax department and a $96,000 fine, as well as perform 350 hours of community service.
In a 2009 declaration to the to the court, Walden wrote that she believed she had exceeded her community service requirements by hundreds of hours.
She also noted that she had donated more than $35,000 to Roosevelt High School and helped organize a benefit concert that helped raise more than $40,000 in donations for the school.
In interviews with Civil Beat, including on Tuesday, Walden said the city came to her about selling the apartment complex, although she couldn’t recall exactly which official initiated the conversation.
She also said that there weren’t a lot of apartment buildings on the market at the time and that she had higher offers on the property, but decided to sell to the city anyway. She described herself as a reluctant seller who was motivated by helping victims of domestic violence.
“In our opinion, the building was worth more but it was for a very good cause,” Walden said. “There are so many abused women in Honolulu but the women cannot leave because of financial restraints.”
Walden said she had a personal acquaintance who was a victim of domestic violence, which made the idea of selling the property even more attractive.
“We did a good deed,” Walden told Civil Beat.
As for her campaign donations to Kaneshiro, Walden pointed out that she contributes to many candidates, including others who ran for city prosecutor.
Kaneshiro, by contrast, said Walden approached him about selling the property for Safe House. He didn’t recall many details about his dealings with Walden, saying that he left the negotiations up to other city officials.
In a July interview with Civil Beat, Kaneshiro downplayed his relationship with the real estate investor. He said he first met her when she worked on a rival campaign for Pacarro in 2010. Their only other meeting not related to the Safe House, he said, was at a restaurant several years later when she came to his table to say hello.
He said Walden’s offer, which he considered “fair” came as his staff was struggling to locate potential sites for the Safe House.
“There was no housing complex on the market at all, and she happened to come and tell us that she had one available,” Kaneshiro said. “I asked her if it was on the market and she said, ‘No. It’s not on the market.’ But she understood what the cause was and she believed in the cause and wanted to help us.”