The trial of the former Honolulu police chief, his wife and several police officers will go ahead as planned in March, a federal judge said on Friday.

Federal Magistrate Judge Richard Puglisi dismissed the request for a postponement Friday, saying the partial shutdown of the federal government will not affect the defendants’ ability to receive effective counsel, even though the two main defendants, former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, former deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, are being represented by court-appointed lawyers paid by the federal government.

Katherine Kealoha’s attorney, Cynthia Kagiwada, had asked for a delay, arguing that the partial shutdown would prohibit her from mounting an effective defense of her client. Kagiwada says she is not getting paid and argued that travel expenses and expert witness fees needed to put together a defense couldn’t be guaranteed, which would further hinder her side’s case.

Retired HPD Chief Louis Kealoha Katherine Kealoha leave District Court.
Retired HPD Chief Louis Kealoha and Katherine Kealoha, a former deputy prosecuting attorney, are scheduled to go on trial in March. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But Puglisi pointed out that the lawyers would be paid, and so would the expert witnesses. Although he acknowledged the payment might be deferred until the shutdown was over, he said lawyers typically don’t get paid in real time or even monthly. There’s always a lag time between when lawyers work and when they get paid, the judge said.

In addition, the judge noted that in the current case, all of the bills related to the matter have already been paid; there were no legal bills outstanding from Kagiwada or anyone else.

“We don’t pay bills we haven’t seen,” he said.

Travel expenses would be covered by the court, he said. As for expert witnesses who might not appear if they are not getting paid immediately, the judge said he could guarantee them that they would be compensated. And he said he would be willing to talk to any experts who wouldn’t appear in court if they were not paid immediately.

“On behalf of the U.S. Courts, I will guarantee everybody gets paid,” he said. “I don’t think you can get a better guarantee than a judge in federal court.”

Two other court-appointed attorneys appeared at the hearing on Friday, however, neither of them pressed hard on the issue. Rustam Barbee, Louis Kealoha‘s attorney, said he had not joined Kagiwada’s motion to continue the trial because he believed the shutdown issues will be resolved.

“Perhaps I’m overly optimistic or naïve,“ he said, but added that he generally agreed with what Kagiwada said.

Randall Hironaka, an attorney for HPD Officer Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, also appeared but didn’t push for a delay.

The Kealohas were indicted in October 2017 along with four HPD officers; a fifth officer had already pleaded guilty.

The Kealohas face one federal trial for bank fraud and another trial for an alleged conspiracy in which the couple allegedly used city resources and police officers to frame a relative, Gerard Puana, who was engaged in a family dispute with the Kealohas over money.

The conspiracy case is scheduled for March 18 in federal court. The bank fraud case is slated for June.

Last week, one of the four indicted officers, Sgt. Daniel Sellers, pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count as part of a deal with federal prosecutors in exchange for all other charges against him being dropped. He’s also agreed to cooperate with a continuing FBI investigation into alleged corruption in the police department and the Honolulu city prosecutor’s office.

A fifth officer, Niall Silva, also pleaded guilty in December 2016, and has been cooperating with federal investigators.

Although none of the parties to the case were at the hearing in federal court on Friday, there was one person with a significant interest in the matter: Alexander Silvert, the federal public defender who unearthed the alleged conspiracy against Gerard Puana. Silvert said it was time that Puana and his mother Florence, who is 99, are able to see the case resolved.

“It’s time for this case to proceed,” he said. “They need some closure.”

The federal government’s widening investigation continues to ensnare government officials. Earlier this week, Honolulu’s top attorney, Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, went on paid leave after being notified by federal prosecutors that she is a target in the ongoing, years-long corruption probe. Mayor Kirk Caldwell said on Monday that he and Leong had mutually agreed that she would take a leave of absence with pay to avoid any distraction that could be brought by the target letter.

Although Caldwell provided few details about the letter, he did say it involves a $250,000 severance payment made to Louis Kealoha. The chief retired in February 2017 with his full retirement pension, benefits and the severance check, which he is required to repay if he is convicted of a felony within six years of retirement.

In addition, Katherine Kealoha’s former boss, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, also has received a target letter. The prosecutor has refused to talk about the federal investigation and how it pertains to him and has continued to stay on the job. His top deputy, Chasid Sapolu, has taken a leave from the prosecutor’s office after being notified by investigators that he too is somehow caught up in the probe.

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