Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors’ request for the state Supreme Court to suspend Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro’s law license and temporarily remove him from office sets the stage for a major fight: the state’s top lawyer battling the city’s top prosecutor with the high court presiding as referee.

“Beyond just the appearance of impropriety arising from the fact his conduct as Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney is under federal criminal investigation, each matter that is subject to Kaneshiro’s discretion and influence may be subject to challenge,” Connors wrote in her petition to the court.

The right thing to do is for the prosecutor to take a breather while matters get sorted out, Connors said.

Attorney General Clare Connors announces suspension of Keith Kaneshiro.
Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors has asked the state Supreme Court to immediately suspend Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro because of conflicts. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

But Kaneshiro has shown no sign of backing down.

Bill McCorriston, a Honolulu attorney who is representing Kaneshiro in the effort to remove him from office — both the attorney general’s action and an online petition filed by citizens a few months ago — told reporters at a press conference Tuesday afternoon Kaneshiro has no plans to step down.

He said Kaneshiro will step aside from any involvement in the federal case as it relates to his own employees.

“There should be no rush to judgment,” McCorriston said. “There has been no finding by anybody that Mr. Kaneshiro has done anything wrong.”

He called Connors’ action  unprecedented — and unwarranted. “There is no precedent for it,” he said. “I think we’re treading new ground and not treading it wisely.”

McCorriston confirmed to reporters that Kaneshiro has received a target letter from federal prosecutors.  Previously, Kaneshiro has refused to answer whether he had received a target letter.

McCorriston conceded that Kaneshiro would “carefully consider” taking a leave if he is indicted. “But we’re not there yet,” he added.

Kaneshiro is caught up in a years-long federal investigation into public corruption and abuse of power that has already resulted in the indictment of former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife Katherine, a former prosecutor who was one of Kaneshiro’s senior deputies.

The Kealohas are charged with using police officers and law enforcement resources to frame a relative they were feuding with over money. Five Honolulu police officers have been indicted or charged, and two have already pleaded guilty.

Connors’ petition to the Hawaii Supreme Court to remove Kaneshiro came as prosecutors on Tuesday unsealed another indictment against Katherine Kealoha.

The new indictment alleges she and her brother, Big Island doctor Rudolph Puana, sold powerful opioid painkillers illegally prescribed by Puana, covered it up from police, and thwarted the prosecution of the case using Katherine Kealoha’s position as a top prosecutor under Kaneshiro.

FILE - In this March 2, 2016, file photo, Honolulu's top prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro talks to The Associated Press in Honolulu. Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors asked the state's highest court on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, to immediately suspend Kaneshiro because he is the target of a federal investigation. (AP Photo/Cathy Bussewitz, File)
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro has declined to step down from office despite receiving a target letter signaling he is likely to be indicted. AP

While prosecutors have laid out charges against the Kealohas, the basis for a potential indictment against Kaneshiro is unclear. What is clear, however, is that Connors thinks Kaneshiro should step aside temporarily, and she’s using a creative legal avenue to force him to do so.

Instead of seeking to remove Kaneshiro permanently – there’s already a petition by private citizens to impeach him, which could be resolved by the Supreme Court in April – Connors has invoked the Hawaii Rules of Professional Conduct, colloquially known as the legal ethics rules, saying that Kaneshiro has a conflict of interest.

Relying on professional conduct rules administered by the court, as well as stressing that the suspension is only temporary, sets a lower bar than proving actual criminal misconduct by Kaneshiro.

“This is unprecedented. This is an extraordinary situation.” — Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors

The conflict, Connors argues, is that his personal interest as a likely defendant conflicts with his interest as a prosecutor.

The Supreme Court has ultimate authority over the judiciary, including the licensing of lawyers. However, alleged violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct are normally dealt with by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which the court set up to investigate such matters.

Connors’ petition asks the court to take up the matter directly. It cites a Supreme Court rule that lets the high court do that if there is “sufficient evidence demonstrating that an attorney has committed a violation of the Hawaii Rules of Professional Conduct and poses a substantial threat of serious harm to the public.”

“There is no precedent for (for the AG’s case.) I think we’re treading new ground and not treading it wisely.” — Bill McCorriston, Keith Kaneshiro’s attorney.

After considering the evidence presented by both sides, “the supreme court may enter an order immediately suspending the attorney,” the rule says.

Without an active law license, Kansehiro wouldn’t be qualified to serve as the Honolulu prosecutor and would have to step down. Under the Honolulu City Charter, Kaneshiro would be replaced by the first deputy prosecuting attorney, Dwight Nadamoto.

Asked in a news conference about the legal strategy, Connors said the whole situation was unusual.

Randy Roth, a retired law professor who taught legal ethics to a generation of local attorneys, said he had not read Connors’ petition and thus could not comment on the case’s merits. But he did say it would be in the public’s interest for Kaneshiro to step aside temporarily.

“The fact that he remains in his position is deeply disturbing,” Roth said. “This is obviously an effort to get him to do what he should be doing on his own.”

Is There A Conflict Of Interest?

In broad terms, the petition asks the court to make two determinations: first, that Kaneshiro has the sort of legal conflict of interest that would require him to step aside; second, that there is a “substantial threat of serious harm to the public.”

In this case, having a prosecutor running an entire office while also facing potential indictment is a big problem, according to the attorney general.

“We believe it requires immediate action,” Connors said.

Included in the petition to the court was a declaration by Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard. In it, Ballard questions the head prosecutor’s attendance at monthly public safety meetings “when he, himself, is the target of a federal criminal investigation.”

“Because of the lack of information regarding the allegations, I am unable to discern whether the continued practice of sharing confidential information with Mr. Kaneshiro is appropriate,” Ballard said.

Ballard was not available for comment on Tuesday. But Deputy Police Chief John McCarthy said Connor’s petition “validates what the chief has been saying.”

McCorriston said the prosecutor’s office continues to operate effectively. Ballard has not been able to point to any specific case that has been affected, he said.

“There is no concern whatsoever in the office of the prosecuting attorney that there is dysfunction,” he said. “Cases are being prosecuted every day and competently.”

McCorriston also said the online petition filed by Tracy Yoshimura is based on factual inaccuracies and falsehoods. Kaneshiro has never been served with any legal paperwork relating to that petition so has had no legal path to respond. McCorriston said he will show up at a Thursday hearing anyway and talk to the judge about what’s going on in that case.

Brook Hart, a criminal defense lawyer, said Kaneshiro handling cases while facing his own legal problems creates a number of concerns.

Beyond the optics, there are questions of whether Kaneshiro will handle cases in a particular way to protect his personal stake.

Plus, Hart said there are questions about his relationship with Kealoha and whether she used her position to influence the outcome of cases to help help her personally, as prosecutors alleged in Tuesday’s drug case indictment.

Peter Carlisle, a former Honolulu mayor and prosecuting attorney, said it is clear Kaneshiro should take a leave of absence.

“It’s not just an ethics thing,” he said. “It’s an integrity thing.”

Meanwhile, the Honolulu City Council is taking a second look at its recent preliminary decision to provide Kaneshiro with a publicly funded attorney. A final council vote on the matter has been postponed.

“I think that’s very unfortunate,” McCorriston said, noting that Kaneshiro’s defense against the bid to oust him should be taxpayer-funded because it relates solely to his job.

“It would be very disappointing if the council decided otherwise,” he said. “For them to change course at this time would be a very big mistake.”

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