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The case that started with a stolen mailbox in Kahala has now yielded federal criminal charges against former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, his wife, Katherine, a high-ranking Honolulu prosecutor, and five police officers assigned to an elite unit under the chief’s command.
The indictments in the still unfolding case have come as a shock, although rumors and allegations of public corruption have been swirling around Kealoha for at least three years.
But the indictments also appear to provide vindication for Charles “Chuck” Totto, former executive director and chief legal counsel for the Honolulu Ethics Commission, who resigned under pressure last year, as well as retired HPD Capt. Letha DeCaires, who was the commission’s sole investigator until her contract expired and was not renewed.
In a series of lawsuits, the chief and his prosecutor wife claimed they were being illegally targeted and smeared by Totto, DeCaires and the commission. Pressure from the Kealohas, on top of pressure from the administration of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, combined to force Totto out of the position he had held with the commission since 2000.
The attacks on Totto, DeCaires, and the ethics commission were part of the power couple’s pushback as they sought to intimidate critics and deter questions about their actions.
According to the federal indictments, a small group of officers manufactured false evidence to implicate Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, Gerard Puana, in the theft of a mailbox from the couple’s Kahala home.
Kealoha and her uncle were already embroiled in a bitter family dispute over her alleged mishandling of family money, and the mailbox charges were apparently intended to discredit Puana in an upcoming civil lawsuit seeking to recover substantial sums from the Kealohas.
Chief Kealoha allegedly assigned the mailbox theft case to the elite Criminal Intelligence Unit, which as a rule does not investigate such routine crimes. Officers under Kealoha’s command tampered with evidence, prepared and filed false reports, then lied to investigators and repeated those false statements in trial testimony after Puana was charged with stealing the mailbox. Katherine Kealoha was also charged with misappropriating moneys from several sources, including her uncle and grandmother, and filing fraudulent documents with several banking institutions to support applications for loans.
Federal prosecutors also allege Louis and Katherine Kealoha misused their positions of power and public trust to intimidate their accusers and bluff their way past critical questions raised about their actions. Their dual statuses at or near the top of the police department and the prosecutor’s office enabled them to stifle criticism even as investigators were compiling evidence against them.
“It was further part of the conspiracy that the conspirators would target members of the community who threatened the power and financial condition” of the chief and his wife, the indictment alleges. “The conspirators would seek to discredit and intimidate such persons … by falsely alleging that such persons had engaged in criminal activity or were incompetent.”
It’s important to remember that their bullying, intimidation, and misuse of position were part of what pushed Totto and DeCaires out of their jobs.
In May 2015, six months after the mailbox theft case against Puana was thrown out of court and corruption allegations submitted to the FBI by Puana’s federal defender, Hawaii News Now reported Totto was investigating whether Chief Kealoha had violated the city’s ethics code by assigning officers from the elite CIU to investigate the alleged mailbox theft. This investigation apparently expanded to include allegations against Katherine Kealoha, a supervising attorney in County Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro’s office.
While this exceedingly complex and politically sensitive investigation was underway, Totto was already under intense pressure from the administration of Mayor Kirk Caldwell, which had been squeezing the agency’s budget, refusing to cooperate with ethics investigations and challenging the commission’s primary authority to pursue ethics complaints involving city agencies and employees.
Observers traced the bad blood between Caldwell and the commission back to Totto’s investigation of private contributions to the mayor’s inaugural luau after his election in 2012. The commission found $381,000 in prohibited contributions to the event came from private parties with matters pending before they city. However, the commission concluded Caldwell had not violated the ethics laws because there were no clear guidelines in place at the time concerning such public events.
Totto and the commission continued to aggressively investigate matters important to the Caldwell administration, pursuing cases against members of the Honolulu City Council for violating ethics laws by accepting thousands of dollars of gifts from lobbyists trying to influence votes on key issues, including the city’s controversial rail project.
Little was publicly known about the ethics commission’s Kealoha investigation until the couple began to publicly push back against the investigations. They complained to the commission. They reportedly filed a federal civil rights complaint. And they filed a pair of lawsuits in 2015, one seeking to block the ethics cases from proceeding, another to force disclosure of any complaints in which they were named.
And in April 2016, they announced they would be filing a new lawsuit accusing Totto, DeCaires and the commission of illegally targeting them. The case was eventually filed in June 2016, and is still pending.
In statements to the media and in documents filed in court, the Kealohas disclosed they had been hit with at least 16 separate ethics investigations since 2014. They called the ethics probes “unfounded, unsubstantiated and illegal,” and characterized them as “grotesque abuses of power and process” which had hampered the work of police and prosecutors.
“Making incessant demands upon these departments for documents and information of questionable importance or even relevance, they (Totto and Decaires) have repeatedly imposed unnecessary and frivolous burdens upon these departments in their futile quest to manufacture a case against plaintiffs,” their lawsuit charged.
It’s important to remember that the Kealohas’ bullying, intimidation and misuse of position were part of what pushed Chuck Totto and Letha DeCaires out of their jobs.
In over the top language, the lawsuit accused Totto of being “besotted by unchecked power,” and characterized the actions of the ethics chief and his investigator as “outrageous and beyond the bounds of human decency.”
Both were said to have “deliberately harassed and bullied employees of both the Prosecutor’s office and HPD” in the course of their multiple investigations,” and of improperly providing confidential information to the FBI, “triggering a federal investigation which included federal subpoenas for information and witnesses who were already part of the investigations being conducted by Totto and DeCaires.”
Although long on rhetorical excess and clearly intended more to impact public opinion than win on its legal merits, these claims by the Kealohas fell on fertile ground at the ethics commission, where a majority of new members appointed by Mayor Caldwell responded by removing Totto from the Kealoha investigations, proposing a policy that would have prevented the commission’s executive director from answering questions from the news media, and eventually hitting Totto with a 30-day suspension.
On Wednesday, June 15, 2016, Totto resigned from his ethics position after 16 years.
Then, in December 2016, the case against the Kealohas and others began to unfold publicly. Retired HPD officer Niall Silva, a former detective in the criminal intelligence unit, pleaded guilty to lying under oath about his participation in a police conspiracy to frame Puana for stealing the Kealoha mailbox.
The same week, Puana filed a new federal lawsuit which named additional officers believed to have taken part in the conspiracy against him, and provided additional detailed allegations about the case against the Kealohas.
In October 2017, the former chief, his wife and four additional police officers were indicted for their roles in the mailbox affair.
And the case may still result in additional charges. A new grand jury was immediately empaneled, and the FBI executed search warrants on the Kealohas’ homes the same week the indictments were announced, indicating no letup in the ongoing probe into corruption with HPD.
Kealoha and the other defendants will all get their day in court before too long, and we’ll find out whether these charges can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
But whether the defendants are convicted or not, the indictments so far in the case show the dogged pursuit of potential ethics violations within HPD and the prosecutor’s office by Totto and DeCaires was not “unfounded,” “unsubstantiated,” nor an abuse of power.
In fact, while members of the Honolulu Police Commission sat on their hands amid the crescendo of allegations against Louis and Katherine Kealoha, the city’s ethics director and his single investigator were pursuing the cases to the best of their abilities, with extremely limited resources and against intense political pressure. Their work, most of it still confidential, appears to have made a significant contribution to what is now recognized as one of the biggest public corruption cases in island history.
In hindsight, Chuck Totto and Letha DeCaires deserve our belated public recognition and thanks.