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The Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has handed off several criminal cases to the Hawaii attorney general’s office due to conflicts of interest apparently arising from the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into public corruption in the police department and prosecutor’s office.
Among the criminal defendants whose cases are being transferred to the state for possible prosecution are Tiffany Masunaga, Albert Lee and Gerard Puana.
All three have ties to the DOJ investigation, and in particular to one of its targets, Katherine Kealoha, a former deputy prosecutor who’s been indicted on dozens of felony charges ranging from conspiracy and bank fraud to identity theft and drug trafficking.
Kealoha’s former boss, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, has also been named a target of the DOJ’s ongoing investigation, but has refused to step down.
Attorney General Clare Connors earlier this month asked the Hawaii Supreme Court to suspend Kaneshiro while the investigation plays out.
On Tuesday, the Honolulu prosecuting attorney’s office provided Civil Beat with a list of the cases it recused itself from, but declined to explain why it decided to step away at this time.
Kaneshiro also declined to be interviewed.
Prosecutors also forwarded a recent case in which Gerard Puana, the uncle of Katherine Kealoha, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.
Kealoha is accused of framing Puana for the theft of her mailbox along with the help of her husband, former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, and several officers assigned to a secretive surveillance unit.
Federal prosecutors have alleged that the set up was aimed at discrediting him in a lawsuit that threatened to expose the Kealohas’ various financial crimes.
The recusals came as a surprise to defense attorney William Harrison, who represents Tiffany Masunaga in state court.
For nearly two years, Harrison said, his client’s life was in danger due to a serious conflict of interest within the Honolulu prosecutor’s office yet officials refused to acknowledge much less act on the warnings.
“I don’t know what happened,” Harrison said. “Maybe the noose got tight around their neck and they just had to let it go.”
Masunaga was arrested in 2015 along with a Honolulu police officer as part of an undercover drug sting that netted cocaine, marijuana and prescription drugs including alprazolam and fentanyl, a potentially dangerous opioid.
Katherine Kealoha was the lead prosecutor in the case, but federal investigators say she used her position to cover up the fact that the prescription drugs came from her younger brother, Rudolph Puana, a licensed anesthesiologist who operated a pain clinic on the Big Island.
According to a February indictment, Puana and Kealoha were illegally distributing the drugs to make money and feed his own cocaine habit.
Harrison said he was in the process of working on a new motion to get his client’s case turned over to the attorney general’s office in light of the indictment when he received news that city prosecutors had handed off the case themselves.
Another case recently filed against Masunaga by the prosecuting attorney’s office related to abuse of a family member will also be sent to the attorney general’s office.
Defense lawyer Megan Kau, who represents Albert Lee, said she was equally as taken aback when she learned her client’s case had been transferred to the state.
“For the past two years, I’ve been telling the prosecutor’s office this whole investigation is tainted,” Kau said.
Lee is a former police sergeant who’s accused of driving under the influence and lying to investigators after a 2016 car crash in which his HPD-subsidized vehicle plowed into a Hawaiian Electric Co. substation in Hawaii Kai and knocked out power to about 1,700 residents.
But Kau said the case reeks of retaliation.
She said the breadth and vigor of the DUI investigation — one that included DNA testing, flying in a mainland consultant to Hawaii to look at the car and the empaneling of a special grand jury — was unprecedented for a misdemeanor case.
Kau, who used to be a city prosecutor, said she’d never seen anything like it.
She also said the fact that the career criminal division, which used to be led by Katherine Kealoha, was in charge of the prosecution was a red flag.
“It’s not just that they went after him by assigning a more experienced deputy,” Kau said. “It was a fox guarding the henhouse. She was making sure she had control over everything.”
The day of the crash Lee was scheduled to testify before the federal grand jury that was investigating both Kealoha and then-Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha.
“It was a fox guarding the henhouse. She was making sure she had control over everything.” — Defense attorney Megan Kau
Lee was expected to answer questions about a 2015 incident in which one of his officers, Jared Spiker, pulled over Michael Miske, a local Honolulu businessman and convicted felon, for being on his cell phone while driving.
According to police reports, Miske fled the scene before Spiker could give him a citation. Miske then called Spiker to see if they could “work something out.”
The reports state Miske called Spiker a couple days later, this time while Lee was listening in with the speakerphone turned on.
Lee heard the man threaten Spiker, telling him he “better be careful of the choices you made.”
“I can press charges just as much as you can,” Miske said, according to the reports. “Don’t go throwing your guys weight around. I can go to the top of the food chain. You’ll see, Jared Spiker.”
Lee eventually arrested Miske. He was charged with a petty misdemeanor for disobedience to a police officer, pleaded no contest and paid a fine.
Kau said that after that incident Katherine Kealoha had one of the investigators in her office file an internal affairs complaint against Lee at HPD, where her husband was still chief.
She also says Kealoha had called Spiker directly and told him to back off.
With the case out of the city prosecutors’ grasp, Kau said she hopes she can get a fair vetting of the conflicts at play to get the charges against Lee dismissed.
She said she still plans to put employees of the prosecuting attorney’s office on the witness stand to fully scrutinize the criminal investigation into her client as well as the alleged attempts to discredit him through internal affairs investigations.
“Katherine Kealoha has abused her power, and it’s very clear,” Kau said. “If you’re a prosecutor and a police officer you can’t cross that line, and she did and there’s evidence of it.”
She said Kealoha’s cases should be reviewed to see how many others might be tainted.
Similarly, Harrison said the fact that Honolulu’s prosecuting attorney’s office has acknowledged it has serious conflicts of interest is a good first step, but he still thinks more needs to be done.
When Katherine Kealoha was in the prosecutor’s office she was the head of the career criminal division, supervising deputies taking on some of biggest cases in the state.
Harrison said any case Kealoha herself was directly involved in — especially if it involved a known acquaintance or family member — should be reviewed by the office to ensure they were handled properly.
But even more important are the cases outside of her purview, those that wouldn’t fall under the jurisdiction of a career criminal unit.
He pointed specifically to cases in which she’s been accused by federal investigators of dismissing speeding tickets and DUI’s for friends.
“They’re clearly going to have to look at everything she’s touched,” Harrison said.
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