When Ransen Taito walked into the U.S. District Court of Hawaii on Friday to plead guilty to felony conspiracy, he was about to roll over in a big way on his “aunty,” someone he trusted since childhood: Honolulu deputy prosecuting attorney Katherine Kealoha.
The plea was part of a corruption investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into Kealoha and her husband, Louis Kealoha, the former chief of the Honolulu Police Department.
The Kealohas are accused of framing a family member for the theft of their mailbox in an attempt to cover up alleged financial crimes. Another alleged scheme involves stealing nearly $150,000 from Taito and his younger sister, Ariana Taito, when they were minors.
Years after taking the Taitos’ money, court records say, Katherine Kealoha convinced Ransen Taito to lie to federal investigators and sign fraudulent documents to help her cover up the theft. Kealoha had told Taito his mother would go to jail if he didn’t lie, and Taito believed her.
On Friday, more than a decade after Kealoha took the young Taitos under her wing as their guardian, Ransen Taito was in court telling U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright that Kealoha had not only stolen their money but also convinced Ransen to commit a felony by signing false documents.
“To be honest with you I signed anything she put in front of me,” Taito told Seabright. “She was my lawyer.”
Seabright accepted the guilty plea.
Taito’s defense attorney, Michael Green, addressed the media after Friday’s hearing. He said from his perspective it’s clear to him that Kealoha took advantage of the vulnerabilities of the Taitos to funnel money from their financial trusts into her own bank account.
Ransen Taito is a 26-year-old car salesman with a high school diploma. When Kealoha was persuading him to lie to investigators about the theft, he believed he was doing it to protect his mother — who had a drug problem — from future jail time, Green said.
“They thought that they she really cared about them” Green said, referring to Kealoha. “She pit the family against each other besides stealing their money.”
According to Taito’s plea agreement, the pathway to deception began in 2004. That’s when Katherine Kealoha was appointed by a Hawaii state court as a guardian for him and his sister, Ariana, after their father died. They were 12 and 10 years old at the time.
Kealoha, who was in private practice, was supposed to create two separate trust accounts for the siblings to split $167,000 their father had left them after he died. The money had come from a medical malpractice claim that he had filed before his death.
At the time the court stated that any money taken from the trust accounts — which contained about $84,000 each — was supposed to be approved by either Kealoha or her co-counsel in the guardianship case, who federal prosecutors identify only as “Attorney 1.”
Civil Beat has since learned that Attorney 1 is Jim Bickerton, a well-known Honolulu lawyer.
But according to court documents, Kealoha began withdrawing funds from the children’s trust accounts without either Bickerton’s or the Taitos’ knowledge. From 2004 to 2012, she took nearly all of the money.
Court records state that the Kealohas used the money — which the Taitos were supposed to get when they turned 18 — to secure personal loans, pay off credit card debt, cover their mortgage and send their own daughter to a private school.
In August 2010, after Ransen Taito turned 18, federal prosecutors say Kealoha created a document that said he had received all of the funds promised to him.
Taito’s plea agreement says she convinced him to sign the fraudulent document by telling him, falsely, the money had been improperly spent on his mother, Lauren Taito, and that if he didn’t sign off that she could get into trouble. He signed the paperwork.
Kealoha then filed the document in state court, indicating Ransen had received his money.
A year later, when Kealoha was working for Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, she invited Ransen Taito to her office to sign even more paperwork related to his trust, telling him again that if he didn’t his mother could go to jail.
Again, the documents falsely stated that Taito had received all of his trust funds.
In 2011 and 2012, Bickerton began asking Kealoha about the status of the Taito trusts. According to court records, she evaded Bickerton’s questions and provided him with false information. She’s even accused of using an alias, Alison Lee Wong, to help cover her tracks.
Eventually, in an attempt to appease Bickerton, Kealoha convinced Taito to sign yet another allegedly false statement saying that he had received nearly $84,000 from his trust when he turned 18. He signed the document before a notary public.
Three years later, on Jan. 31, 2015, Taito’s plea agreement states Kealoha met the siblings at Tanaka Saimin to talk about the guardianship case and their trust accounts.
According to the plea, she told them that she couldn’t give them the lump sum money they were owed from their trust accounts because it has been “penalized” due to her taking the money out and giving it to their mother.
Kealoha offered to start paying the Taitos $500 a month until she could scrape together the rest of the money to pay the siblings, both of whom still trusted her as “Aunty Kathy.”
It wasn’t until 2016 that the Taitos began to have misgivings, according to Ransen’s plea.
By then, Kealoha and her husband were being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department. In April 2016, when the FBI tried to contact the siblings about subpoenas to come testify before a federal grand jury, Kealoha offered to help them.
The plea agreement described what happened:
Kealoha assured TAITO that everything was fine, that Kealoha would take care of it, that TAITO and A.T. could refuse to talk to the FBI, and that if the FBI contacted them again they should call her or Attorney 2 (whom Kealoha said would be their attorney).
“Attorney 2” is Jacob Delaplane, a former Honolulu city prosecutor who worked with Kealoha in the career criminal division. Kealoha was Delaplane’s supervisor.
They also worked together on a major gambling case in which they were both accused of prosecutorial misconduct. Kealoha also allegedly leaked the name of a criminal informant to one of the defendants in that case in an attempt to curry favor with a defense attorney.
Delaplane did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment Friday. But in a previous interview, he said he considered Kealoha a “good supervisor and colleague.”
“All the speculation about her sinister motives surrounding this case is just baffling,” Delaplane said. “I’m looking forward to hearing both sides of this story.”
On April 21, 2016, Ransen Taito testified before a federal grand jury. But before he went to the courthouse downtown, federal prosecutors say, he met with Kealoha, who had told him that if he didn’t stick to the lie that he had received all of his trust money that his mother would go to jail.
Kealoha also allegedly told him that she was the only person who could recover the money.
Taito was escorted to the courthouse by Delaplane the day he had to testify. After Taito was placed under oath, he lied to the grand jury by saying he received all his trust money. His sister, Ariana, was also called to testify that same day.
Clarification: In an earlier version, the wording of the following paragraph may have implied that the plea agreement said Delaplane instructed Ariana Taito to lie. The plea agreement does not state that.
She was also instructed to lie on behalf of Kealoha, according to the plea agreement. It stated she was escorted to the courthouse by Delaplane.
The plea agreement states that after the Taitos testified they met with Kealoha at the Like Like Drive Inn on Keeaumoku Street, where she asked Ransen to sign several pieces of paper using pens with different colored ink to make it appeared they had been signed at different times.
According to federal investigators, Delaplane then provided those “false and misleading documents” signed by Taito and his sister to the FBI.
Over the next several months — right up until Oct. 20, the day the Justice Department unsealed its 20-count indictment against Kealoha, her husband and four police officers — prosecutors say Taito continued to “obstruct, impair and impede” their federal investigation.
As part of his plea agreement, Taito faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, although his attorney, Michael Green, says he hopes there won’t be any jail time. Green said he also intends to seek financial restitution from the Kealohas through the courts.
He said that of the $167,000 that was put into their trust accounts, they received about $24,000.
“They’re labeled as victims by the federal government and we expect to get their money for them,” Green said. “The crime itself goes to the core and the heart of our system — perjury and lying, especially in front of a grand jury.
“But the mitigation in this case as to how and why (the crime) happened is overwhelming to me,” Green said.
Katherine Kealoha’s court-appointed defense attorney, Cynthia Kagiwada, attended Friday’s proceedings, as did her previous defense counsel, Kevin Sumida. Kagiwada, who is now Kealoha’s sole defense attorney in the criminal case, declined to comment on the proceedings.
She had previously been critical of the federal investigators handling the case, describing them as “mainland prosecutors” who are “not necessarily familiar with everything in Hawaii.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat, the special prosecutor from San Diego leading the ongoing corruption probe, also refused to talk about the case Friday.
On his suit, however, he wore a Hawaii state flag lapel pin.