Tensions flared at Wednesday’s Honolulu Police Commission meeting as former Police Chief Louis Kealoha continued his quest to have taxpayers foot his legal bills.
The latest salvo came from Kealoha’s attorney, Kevin Sumida, who accused Commissioner Loretta Sheehan of breaking the law in her attempts to investigate his client’s alleged misdeeds.
“From the day you were appointed you have made it very clear that you have it out for Chief Kealoha.” Sumida said, directing his comments toward Sheehan.
Sheehan called Sumida’s claims offensive and refused his request that she recuse herself from commission proceedings involving the former chief.
Kealoha is currently under federal investigation for allegations of public corruption, abuse of power and civil rights violations for an attempted framing of his wife’s uncle.
But while it’s up to the commission to decide whether Kealoha gets subsidized legal fees, Sumida said he doesn’t want Sheehan taking part in that decision.
He said her bias against his client is clear. Sheehan has been one of the most outspoken commissioners about officer misconduct and other management issues within the Honolulu Police Department ever since she was nominated in June of 2016.
She was also the only commissioner to vote against a $250,000 severance package for Kealoha when he announced his retirement in January after being named a target of the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing criminal investigation.
Sheehan said she would have preferred to hold an administrative proceeding to determine whether Kealoha instead deserved to be fired.
On Wednesday, Sumida told the commissioners that Sheehan’s actions and public statements were a clear indication that she could not remain impartial in matters related to the chief.
He said that she was acting outside of her scope as a commissioner and conducting her own investigation into his client by reading news articles about the ongoing investigation and talking to people associated with it.
Sumida also brought up the fact that Sheehan had attended a federal court proceeding — it was open to the public — in which a former Honolulu police officer, Niall Silva, pleaded guilty to conspiracy for taking part in the alleged frame job.
“My allegation is you broke the law or may have broken the law by attending these federal proceedings in your quest to get Chief Kealoha out,” Sumida said, quickly adding that it is “an expression of your bias against him.”
Sumida’s comments set off some tense back-and-forth between him and Sheehan. But it also didn’t seem to sit well with her colleagues, in particular Chairman Max Sword and Commissioner Steven Levinson, who also attended Silva’s hearing.
Although Sword said he was not at the courthouse in December when Silva pleaded guilty, he told Sumida he considered sitting in the room to watch the proceedings.
He then questioned Sumida’s logic in stating that commissioners should not apprise themselves of happenings within the Honolulu Police Department via the press and other means.
“So we should be monks and cloister ourselves?” Sword asked, laughing at his own question.
Sheehan, a former U.S. attorney, tore into Sumida’s argument that she disqualify herself.
She asked a series of pointed questions in an attempt to undermine the basis of his request, most notably by highlighting the fact that she had attended Silva’s plea hearing several months before Kealoha even asked to have taxpayers pick up his legal tab.
Sheehan also blasted the notion that she was somehow breaking the law by reading publicly available documents and going to court proceedings that she and others have a constitutional right to attend. She said she was doing her job as a police commissioner.
“From the day I took this job the well-being of the Honolulu Police Department and the public has been at the forefront of my mind,” Sheehan said.
“I wasn’t out to get anyone, I was out to ask legitimate questions about concerns I had about the operations of the Police Department,” Sheehan said. “I am offended by the suggestion that I have broken the law by going to court. I am offended (by the suggestion) that I have broken the law by asking questions.”
Sheehan refused to recuse herself from future proceedings regarding Kealoha’s legal fees, a decision that was unanimously supported by the commission.
It’s unclear when that hearing might take place.
While much of the drama at Wednesday’s meeting was focused on Sumida and Sheehan, the commissioners also discussed their ongoing search for a police chief.
Commissioner Luella Costales said she still has misgivings about how consultants narrowed down a field of 24 candidates to nine, especially given that the recent scoring of test results was done by four white males, three of whom are from Pennsylvania.
Costales asked her colleagues if they would be interested in revisiting the process to add more diversity and community input to the process.
Her request was shot down, however, after several commissioners said that they don’t want to delay hiring a permanent chief any longer than necessary.
Sword said after the meeting the commission is still on track to hire a new chief by October.