The Hawaii Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a petition from Honolulu Civil Beat and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser aimed at increasing transparency at the Honolulu Police Commission.

Two Honolulu police officers, Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen and Daniel Sellers, had sought taxpayer-funded attorneys, a matter the commission has usually taken up out of view of the public.

In July, two police commissioners threatened to walk out of a public meeting after arguing the panel was violating the First Amendment and state law requiring open governmental proceedings.

Commissioners Loretta Sheehan, a former federal prosecutor, and Steven Levinson, a retired state Supreme Court justice,  argued that the Nguyen and Sellers’ case should be public. At the time, the officers had been named in a lawsuit related to a corruption and abuse of power investigation involving former HPD Chief Louis Kealoha and his city prosecutor wife, Katherine Kealoha.

On Friday, the Kealohas were arrested and indicted on 20 counts. They pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Sellers was also arrested and charged.

Chair Honolulu Police Commission Max Sword speaks to media with acting HPD Chief Cary Okimoto at press conference held at HPD headquarters. 20 dec 2016
A Honolulu Police Commission meeting earlier this month. There is a dispute among commissioners about holding secret deliberations over cops and taxpayer-funded legal fees. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nguyen and former Maj. Gordon Shiraishi were arrested Oct. 14 as part of the same investigation, while officer Derek Hahn was arrested Wednesday.

In the petition to the high court, Brian Black for the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest and Jeff Portnoy for the Star-Advertiser contended that the public had a right to know how the police officers were being treated by the government, since taxpayer money was involved.

But the five justices denied the legal challenge, which was filed last month, because the court did not find any harm had been done that would warrant a hearing.

“I think the court is waiting for a case in which the public has been excluded,” Black said Tuesday. “I think it is a matter of waiting to see what the Police Commission does, because it is always possible they could change their policy — and frankly, I would encourage them to do that.”

It is unclear at this time if Kealoha, Sellers or any of the other officers involved in the criminal conspiracy case will ask the commission to pay for their legal defense.

The commission has been busy searching for a permanent replacement for Louis Kealoha. Only four members of the seven-member board are involved, as one commissioner has recused himself because of a conflict of interest while two of the commissioner positions are vacant.

The Honolulu City Council is considering Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s nomination to the commission of hotel executive Jerry Gibson and former Wall Street executive Karen Chang.

Hawaii Supreme Court opinion Oct. 24, 2017:

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