Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro has refused to acknowledge what multiple sources have confirmed: that he has received a target letter from the U.S. Department of Justice saying he is the subject of a federal investigation.
Kaneshiro doesn’t just refuse to talk about it. His written defense of not talking is so terse, self-righteous, and factually wrong that we need to go deeper to understand this bad behavior.
Calling it stonewalling or a coverup doesn’t really get at its depth or seriousness.
The best way to think about it is this: Kaneshiro is displaying the quiet arrogance of power. And power corrupts. In this case, it’s a corruption of democratic norms that are supposed to hold accountable a politician who thinks he is a high muckety muck.
Yeah, he’s no Donald Trump. After all, I did say, “quiet arrogance.” Still, corruption nonetheless.
Keith Kaneshiro refuses to confirm — or deny — that he is the target of a federal investigation.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
To understand this arrogance and its consequences you have to understand the job and understand the man.
Think of Lord Acton’s famous adage, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This is just a rough guide, not a blanket truth (though Acton thought it was.) Still, the suggestion that there is a danger that people get worse as they get more powerful nicely frames Kaneshiro’s job and the man himself.
The prosecutorial job itself creates the potential for behavior like Kaneshiro’s.
The Power Of The Prosecutor
A prosecutor has an enormous amount of discretion, arguably more than any other public official (yes including the president of the United States).
The prosecutor decides who gets charged with a crime, what those charges are, and whether the case will be tried (rare) or plea-bargained.
Their decisions impact the country’s incarceration rates more than any other factor.
Any person holding this job makes crucial decisions with very little oversight.
The good side of discretion, whether you are a parent, bureaucrat or cop, is that it is essential, but you use it with restraint. The bad side, like in Kaneshiro’s case, is that discretion becomes a justification for isolation, unaccountability and arrogance.
Do you see Lord Acton salivating?
There is another way that prosecutorial discretion enhances power. It has to do with image.
And image is not merely the frosting on the cake. It is the essence, its flour, sugar, and salt.
Supposed To Be One Of The Good Guys
Think of what comes to your mind when I say “prosecutor” or “district attorney.” A swashbuckling, crime-fighting hard guy or gal who is at the forefront of the fight against evil. Getting the bad guys off the streets into prison where they belong.
Today there are some reform-minded city prosecutors who try to refine this image, especially the part about incarceration. Even so, no prosecutor wants her image to be soft.
Peter Carlisle was approachable during his time as prosecuting attorney.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
But the crime-fighter hard guy look varies by prosecutor. Peter Carlisle, Honolulu’s previous prosecutor and a longtime critic of Kaneshiro, cultivated that reputation but also worked very hard at being personable, even allowing journalists to do an up close and personal profile of him and his family.
Are there any journalists out there who want to take a shot at doing this kind of profile of Kaneshiro?
It doesn’t take a psychologist to see how central being a hard guy is to Kaneshiro’s image. He seldom smiles in photos, though on one of his campaign websites there is a picture of him smiling and holding two small dogs at a charity event.
Kaneshiro’s no-nonsense look.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A more typical photo shows him with that tough guy look wearing don’t tread-on-me shades.
Consider how Kaneshiro handled earlier inquiries about the Kealohas’ cases.
In a 2017 interview immediately after his re-election and well into the Kealoha’s scandal, he briefly mentioned the scandal and acknowledged that the office would have to rebuild some public trust.
Then he focused on defending his office and critiquing the media. “We are not the bad guys. We are the good guys.”
“The media will only present one view of the prosecution, the defense attorney’s view,” he said. “We need to assure misperception does not occur…We want to make sure info goes out…that the police organization is respectful and professional in how they do work.”
So why wouldn’t he try to get his vision out to the media? Because in his words, “ethical rules” required him to be silent.
A True Believer In Himself
When you come right down to it, Keith Kaneshiro is way too sure of himself. Instead of the nuanced behavior that a public job operating under the radar requires, he chooses to see that as an excuse for evasion and disdain.
Kaneshiro is not being transparent and accountable, but as explanations those terms seem sterile and limited.
The trouble with this prosecutor — his ultimate violation of democratic norms — is that he appears to be totally convinced of his own virtue.
The prosecutor has few checks on his accountability and few ways to affect the job’s vast discretion.
In 2016, 79 percent of the voters chose him, a Dan Inouye-sized victory. The impeachment process for the office is a joke, literally a mistake in the City Charter.
What’s left in the arsenal is a sense of inner restraint that comes from knowing all the power you have and appreciating its dangers.
Arrogance comes from a total belief in your own virtue. It gets worse when the nature of your job tempts you to reinforce this arrogance.
You become self-righteous, a true believer in yourself, and a rejecter of anyone with different ideas.
There are good reasons why “high muckity muck” is a pejorative term. Kaneshiro is one of those reasons.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.