Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard and a pair of police commissioners who voted to hire her defended her conduct as a former police academy commander 10 years ago in response to allegations that she played a role in altering test scores of some recruits.
The allegations stem from a 2009 lawsuit, which the city agreed to settle earlier this month for $550,000. The sum will be paid to 33-year HPD veteran Lt. Deeann Koanui, who said she faced retaliation and harassment for reporting the altered test scores to police internal affairs investigators.
“My decisions that I made while I was a major at HPD — I still stand by all those decisions,” Ballard said Wednesday at a meeting of the Honolulu Police Commission.
The discussion came shortly before the commission announced it had given Ballard a largely excellent job review and would release the full exam Thursday.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first chance the chief has had to speak directly to the commission about the lawsuit. There has been growing public criticism about Ballard’s role in what happened at the academy as well as questions about why the police commission moved forward in selecting her as chief knowing the allegations were out there.
The doctoring of both written and physical fitness exam scores is alleged to have happened at a time when HPD had persistent vacancies — and faced the possibility that unfilled officer positions might be eliminated.
Multiple bodies investigated the allegations in the suit, including the city’s Equal Opportunity Office, the state Ethics Commission, HPD’s Internal Affairs Division and the police union. None of those investigations, according to Ballard, uncovered any facts that support the allegations.
She noted that the decision to settle the case was done for economic reasons.
Commission Chairwoman Loretta Sheehan said she knew about the lawsuit at the time of Ballard’s interview with commissioners for the chief’s job. She said she chalked it up to a “personal beef” between Ballard and Koanui.
“I understand that lawsuits settle,” said Sheehan. “I personally, if I had been trial attorney, might have made a different choice — but that’s not my call.”
She added, “There is no misconduct, in my opinion, of Chief Ballard.”
Steven Levinson, the only other current police commissioner who was involved with Ballard’s hiring, said she was “clearly and indisputably the most qualified candidate” for the job.
“I think the suggestion that we were somehow taking leave of our senses to have hired her in the first place is way out of line,” Levinson said referring to a recent editorial in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “And I think the suggestion that the commission owes the public an explanation as to why this case was settled — a matter over which we had and have no control whatsoever — was way, way out of line.”
While the commission is responsible for hiring and disciplining the police chief, it does not play a role in settling lawsuits involving the chief or other police officers.
Ballard was sworn in as Honolulu’s first female chief in 2017 amid a corruption scandal that involved her predecessor. The scandal has led to federal charges against former Chief Louis Kealoha, his wife Katherine Kealoha, a former deputy prosecutor, and several HPD officers.
On Tuesday, Ballard received the results of her first annual performance evaluation. Ballard said she received a rating of “exceeds standards” in five categories and “meets standards” in two categories.
The commission plans to release the details of the review on Thursday, including the data used by commissioners to evaluate Ballard.
The evaluation process for Ballard has been handled much differently than for previous chiefs. Under Kealoha’s tenure, the commission did not publicly release any materials to justify how it arrived at the chief’s score each year.
Taxpayer-Funded Legal Defense
Also on Wednesday, the Police Commission approved a request for city taxpayers to fund the former chief’s legal defense in connection with federal charges stemming from a plot to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle for the theft of a mailbox in order to gain leverage in a family legal dispute involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The commission denied Kealoha’s request for a taxpayer-funded attorney to represent him in a separate but related criminal trial for a series of financial crimes, including bank fraud and identity theft.
Levinson said the denial stems from the commission’s understanding that the alleged acts in the bank fraud case were not done as part of Kealoha’s performance and duty as a police officer.
The practice of paying for an officer’s legal defense is allowed under state law so long as the officer can prove that what they’re being accused of occurred during the course of their work as a cop.
But now that a judge has approved the $1.3 million sale of the couple’s foreclosed Hawaii Kai home, Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin McDonald wants U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright to reconsider whether the Kealohas can afford their own legal bills.
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