Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s two nominees to the board that oversees Honolulu’s troubled police department will be questioned by a Honolulu City Council committee on Tuesday in a first step toward confirmation.

The nominations of business executives Karen Chang and Jerry Gibson to fill two vacancies on the Honolulu Police Commission are gathering more attention than usual, coming amid a corruption scandal that led to the Oct. 19 arrests by the FBI of Honolulu’s former police chief, his prosecutor wife and five HPD officers.

Chang is the board chair of Hawaii Pacific Health and a former executive with two national financial services firms. Jerry Gibson is area vice president for Hilton’s hotels in Hawaii.

The nominations are scheduled for a vote by the full City Council on Wednesday.

HPD Police Commission meeting held at HPD headquarters.
The Honolulu Police Commission, which oversees the troubled Honolulu Police Department, has two vacancies that Mayor Kirk Caldwell is seeking to fill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Chang and Gibson have deep experience in their respective fields of business administration, finance and hospitality. But neither has direct experience in law, the criminal justice system or social services related to law enforcement,

Gibson would succeed Marc Tilker, president and chief executive of Marathon Group, a fertilizer and agricultural products company. Chang would replace Luella Costales, who helps run a nonprofit organization that mentors and educates young people to be cultural and environmental stewards.

The seven-member commission is charged with overseeing the Honolulu Police Department.

Its duties, according to the Honolulu City Charter, include adopting and reviewing rules governing the department, reviewing the annual budget submitted by the police chief, submitting an annual report to the mayor and City Council, and investigating charges brought by the public against the conduct of the department or any of its members.

HPD Police Commission Judge Steven Levinso.
Steven Levinson, a retired justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court and current police commissioner, says he believes Caldwell’s nominees will be valuable additions to the commission. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Steven Levinson, a retired justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court who serves on the commission, said the nominees appear capable of fulfilling these duties. Although Levinson has said the commission would benefit from more members with legal backgrounds, he said he had spoken to Chang and was impressed.

“Karen is a financial wizard, basically,” Levinson said of Chang, whose resume includes senior positions with American Express Co. and Charles Schwab & Co.  “I foresee she is going to be a very valuable member, and I’m very hopeful that Jerry is going to be a very important member of the group for many of the same reasons.”

Chang’s position as board chair of Hawaii Pacific Health makes her responsible for overseeing the state’s largest health care provider. The nonprofit operates Kapiolani, Pali Momi, Straub and Wilcox medical centers, plus dozens of smaller facilities.

Chang is the long-time fiancee of Rick Blangiardi, the general manager of Hawaii News Now, a joint operation of Honolulu television channels KHNL and KGMB.

If confirmed, Chang and Gibson will be responsible for helping address the type of misconduct the federal government alleges former Police Chief Louis Kealoha engaged in along with his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a high-ranking deputy prosecuting attorney for the city.

The charges against the Kealohas, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and bank fraud, were spelled out in an 20-count federal indictment. 

Federal prosecutors allege the Kealohas abused their positions to discredit and intimidate relatives who had accused the Kealohas of misappropriating money from them.

Among other things, the government accuses Louis Kealoha of involving officers from HPD’s Criminal Investigations Unit in the scheme, which allegedly included fabricating evidence in an attempt to get the federal government to bring charges against Katherine’s uncle, Gerard Puana.

At the time, Puana was in a dispute with the Kealohas over personal financial transactions that Puana had entered with the Kealohas. The federal indictment accuses the Kealohas of misappropriating money from Puana and Katherine’s grandmother, Florence Puana.

Despite questions about Kealoha’s conduct, the police commission in January agreed to pay Louis Kealoha $250,000 as part of a retirement deal. However, he must pay back the money if he is convicted of a felony.

According to a spokesman for Mayor Kirk Caldwell, the intense media scrutiny of the police department and commission has made it difficult to fill the commission positions. The commission soon will lose two more commissioners: the terms of Cha Thompson, who runs a large entertainment company, and Eddie Flores Jr., who runs a restaurant chain, expire at the end of this year.

Despite the challenges and scrutiny facing the commission, Levinson said he believes Chang and Gibson will have the toughness to face the rigors of the job.

“She’s a tough lady,” Levinson said of Chang. “I have never met Jerry Gibson, but I can’t imagine he’s gotten where he’s gotten by not being a tough cookie, too.”

Chang declined to comment, saying it was premature to to discuss the nomination before the council hearings. Gibson was unavailable for comment.

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