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Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro is refusing to discuss an ongoing federal corruption probe that has expanded to include staff in his office and possibly Kaneshiro himself.
Hawaii News Now first reported Tuesday night that Chief Deputy Chasid Sapolu had received a “subject” letter from the U.S. Justice Department notifying him his actions were being investigated.
Since then, several people close to the investigation have told Civil Beat that multiple letters were sent to attorneys in the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office.
Kaneshiro, who was re-elected to the county attorney job in 2016, has not returned phone calls seeking comment on the investigation. A reporter went to his office Friday, but a spokesman would not come out and discuss the matter. Later, the spokesman, Brooks Baehr, texted to say the office would not comment on “investigations any grand jury may or may not be conducting.”
However, Baehr did not deny that federal letters have been received.
Sapolu also did not return messages left at his office, seeking comment.
The Justice Department has been investigating corruption and abuse of power in Honolulu law enforcement agencies since December 2014, and the prosecutor’s office has long had a central role in the investigation.
A federal grand jury in October 2017 indicted former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, his former deputy prosecutor wife Katherine, and four HPD officers on a number of charges. The first of those trials is scheduled to begin March 19. A fifth police officer has already pleaded guilty in the case.
Federal prosecutors Michael Wheat and Eric Beste, the team that will try the Kealohas, declined to comment on any developments with the ongoing probe.
Sapolu began working for the prosecuting attorney’s office in 2011, beginning in the misdemeanor traffic division. He was named first deputy by Kaneshiro in November 2017.
The promotion followed his work in the career criminal unit, where Katherine Kealoha also had worked.
Sapolu was involved in some of the office’s highest profile cases, including the prosecution of federal agent Christopher Deedy for the Waikiki shooting death of Kollin Elderts during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in 2011.
Sapolu has been called to testify before the federal grand jury investigating law enforcement misdeeds a number of times.
The Honolulu Police Department was much more transparent in its handling of the federal investigation than the prosecutor’s office has been.
Two years ago, then-Chief Kealoha placed himself on restricted duty after receiving a target letter from federal investigators. He did so after notifying the Honolulu Police Commission, the board that oversees the actions of the police department. Less than a year later, he was indicted with his wife.
Commission chair Loretta Sheehan said Friday she believes the prosecutor’s office should be up front with the public about what, if anything, is going on. Sheehan is a former prosecutor who worked for both the city and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“The Honolulu Police Commission as a supervisor of Chief Kealoha required him to disclose the receipt of his target letter,” she said. “Responsible supervision of a public office requires nothing less.”
Katherine Kealoha, who along with her husband were indicted for allegedly framing her uncle, stealing from a guardianship account belonging to minors and her grandmother and committing bank fraud and identity theft, resigned from her job with the prosecuting attorney’s office in September.
Other alleged co-conspirators in the frame job case are four Honolulu police officers, Daniel Sellers, Minh Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, Derek Hahn and Gordon Shiraishi. Louis Kealoha is also named as a co-defendant in the financial fraud charges.
But federal investigators, led by Wheat, have continued to uncover potential wrongdoing, much of it within the prosecutor’s office.
A federal grand jury has heard evidence about possible ticket fixing by Katherine Kealoha and Kaneshiro’s attempts to cover it up by saying it was part of his own secret investigation into police corruption.
In 2014, Katherine Kealoha, who was then the head of the career criminal unit in the prosecutor’s office, went to traffic court to dismiss a speeding ticket for Adam Wong, a man who she has described as her electrician. Records show Wong had been pulled over by Honolulu police officer Ty Ah Nee on Aug. 12, 2014, for driving 78 mph in a 35-mph zone.
Kealoha told a judge in September of that year that Wong was not the person driving the truck at the time, and that the driver was a “career criminal” who had both Wong’s drivers license and possession of his vehicle. She also said that the man impersonating Wong was in custody. Wong’s ticket was dismissed.
In 2016, Hawaii News Now first reported that a federal grand jury was investigating whether Kealoha lied to the judge to help Wong get out a ticket.
Kaneshiro, however, has repeatedly defended Kealoha, saying that he was the one who ordered her to dismiss the ticket as part of an investigation into a “ghost ticket” scam in which HPD officers were issuing fake tickets to motorists so they would get called into court and collect overtime pay.
Kaneshiro and his office have not produced any documentation corroborating such a claim, at least as it related to Ah Nee.
In fact, the prosecutor’s office, HPD and the Honolulu Police Commission have said in court records in response to subpoenas that they had no documentation indicating that Ah Nee had ever been investigated for issuing ghost tickets.
Federal prosecutors have also questioned the city’s purchase of an apartment building that’s being used as a shelter for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.
The Honolulu Prosecutor’s Safe House, previously known as the Family Justice Center, is one of Kaneshiro’s crowning achievements in public office, although it has been roundly criticized by advocates of domestic violence.
One of Kaneshiro’s top political donors, Donna Walden, sold the building to the city in 2015 for $5.5 million shortly after she herself purchased it for $4.5 million. A witness called before the grand jury to testify about the property sale told Civil Beat in 2017 that Kaneshiro, who was her boss at the time, had directed her to buy the property.
Sapolu was also involved in a strange case in which Kaneshiro’s office prosecuted a former employee of Mitsunaga & Associates, a company whose top employees give thousands of dollars to Kaneshiro’s political campaigns.
The felony charges were filed despite no independent review by an outside law enforcement agency or grand jury. Kaneshiro’s office simply filed the charges based on information provided by representatives of Mitsunaga & Associates.
A state court judge dismissed the case in 2017 saying, among other things, that the prosecution was “highly unusual,” “irregular” and a “threat to the judicial process.”
In another case earlier this year, Sapolu argued against Civil Beat’s attempts to unseal court records related to the arrest and prosecution of Tiffany Masunaga and Alan Ahn, a former police officer, for drug-related crimes.
Masunaga wanted an independent prosecutor to take over the case due to unspecified conflicts of interest within the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office that her attorney said could put his client’s life in danger.
Katherine Kealoha had been the lead prosecutor on the case before she was placed on leave and eventually resigned.
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