Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro is stepping down temporarily amid a federal corruption probe that has spawned indictments of the former Honolulu police chief and the chief’s wife, a former deputy prosecutor in Kaneshiro’s office.
Kaneshiro himself is the subject of a target letter, indicating he is also a suspect. The announcement came as Kaneshiro faced a deadline Thursday to respond to a request by the state attorney general for the Hawaii Supreme Court to suspend his law license.
Kaneshiro will be paid while on leave.
“I am honored to have served as Prosecuting Attorney for 16 years and am proud to have worked with the professionals and staff of the office and I remain dedicated to my commitment to the voters who elected me,” Kaneshiro said in a statement Thursday. “Every day we work hard to protect the citizens of this county and to hold those who violate criminal laws accountable.”
Attorney General Clare Connors on Thursday withdrew the petition, saying it had produced what she wanted.
“Mr. Kaneshiro’s decision to step down from his public office while the federal criminal investigation is ongoing addresses the conflict of interest created by his receipt of a target letter,” Connors said in a statement. But she added she “will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation at the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney and will take action as necessary.”
Kaneshiro said he was stepping down “to avoid further distraction and to insure the continuity of orderly administration of justice.” He said the office will be run for now by prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto.
Former police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, face federal trials on numerous charges, including conspiracy and bank fraud. Katherine Kealoha and her brother Dr. Randolph Puana have also been indicted on federal drug charges for allegedly operating an illegal prescription opioid ring out of Puana’s medical offices.
Kaneshiro’s purported wrongdoing isn’t clear; however, public officials have expressed concerns about Honolulu’s top prosecutor running an office in charge of law enforcement while he had a cloud over him.
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard, for example, had expressed concerns about Kaneshiro’s attendance at high-level monthly public safety meetings led by Mayor Kirk Caldwell, where confidential information was shared. Connors included a statement from Ballard in the petition to the Supreme Court.
Kaneshiro’s former first deputy, Chasid Sapolu, and Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong had already taken leaves of absence in light of the probe. But Kaneshiro had resisted calls to step aside while the federal cases play out.
To force Kaneshiro to the sideline, Connors took a creative approach, invoking the the Hawaii Rules of Professional Conduct, which governs lawyers, and asking the Supreme Court to step in as the agency that ultimately oversees law licenses.
The court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel normally handles complaints against lawyers and suspensions or disbarments. But Connors used an obscure Supreme Court rule to ask the court to take up the matter directly on grounds that Kaneshiro’s working as the top prosecutor posed a “substantial threat of serious harm to the public.”
Kaneshiro’s stepping down makes that allegation irrelevant.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell applauded Kaneshiro’s decision.
“I believe Honolulu’s Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro made the correct decision in taking a leave of absence with pay pending resolution of his situation,” the mayor said. “As ensured by the Constitution of the United States Keith Kaneshiro is innocent until proven otherwise, but while judicial proceedings move forward, the best solution for the people of the City and County of Honolulu is for him to step aside and allow others to guide the day-to-day operations of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.”
While Kaneshiro’s move may satisfy Connors’ concerns for now, other critics are continuing to push for Kaneshiro’s permanent removal. A petition by private citizens to impeach Kaneshiro remains alive in state court. Tracy Yoshimura, who initiated the impeachment drive, said he has no plan to back down.
“I don’t want to be the one to take the foot off the pedal,” he said Thursday. A hearing in the impeachment case is scheduled for next week.
Nadamoto, now Honolulu’s acting chief prosecutor, worked as a deputy state attorney general from 1981 through 1989 and again from 1996 until 2008. He served as a Honolulu deputy prosecutor from 1989 through 1996 and again from 2010 until now.
Nadamoto is a graduate of the University of Hawaii and received his law degree from the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College in Oregon.
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