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When I read some of the recent filings from the drug case of Katherine Keahola and her brother, Dr. Rudolph Puana, I am reminded of my past life as a drug-addicted lawyer.
It’s also alleged in some of the latest filings of the Keahola drug case that other attorneys mentioned in the filings may have an addiction problem. Relatively recent reports from lawyer assistance programs indicate that 50 percent to 75 percent of lawyer discipline cases nationwide involve chemical dependency. Lawyers suffer from depression and were 3.6 times more likely than average to do so.
In 2016, after conducting national research on lawyer impairment, the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs in collaboration with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation released the results of the first empirical study in 25 years and confirmed lawyers have significant abuse or mental health problems, more so than other professionals or the general population.
The ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs’ most recent national report identified alcohol as the No.1 substance abuse problems for lawyers. The second most commonly abused substance was prescription drugs.
Because of the stigma of drug and alcohol addiction, many lawyers do not seek the help they need. Aside from destroying their own lives and causing harm to their own family, a practicing lawyer, in active addiction, can do an enormous amount of damage to our justice system and the legal community.
The addict/alcoholic lawyer can do significant damage to the justice system, but an addict prosecutor is a clear and present danger to our system of justice.
I don’t know if Kathrine Kealoha or any other attorneys mentioned in the recent federal filings are addict lawyers, but what I do know is that I, as a lawyer, was severely addicted to opiates, cocaine, and alcohol.
I have now been sober a little over 12 years (no alcohol or drugs). Twelve years ago, Feb. 2, 2007, to be exact, my life was in shambles – I was in detox for opioid addiction, financially and emotionally bankrupt, about to be disbarred, and headed to federal prison.
So before I discuss what may be warning signs of addiction in the Keahola case, let me briefly describe what happened to me, so you know, as a former drug-addicted lawyer, that I am speaking from experience, not theory. Since I’m speaking from my experience, I want to also make it clear that in this piece I have written my opinion as a recovered drug addict/alcoholic.
Driven solely by self-interest, I worked hard in school and began my legal career in 1989 as the first African-American lawyer at Ohio’s oldest and most conservative law firm. That job paid well but left me feeling empty, so I started my own law practice.
Soon I had a successful practice that included famous clients such as NFL and professional baseball star Deion Sanders, NFL star Elbert “Ickey” Woods, and entertainers like Peter Frampton. I won cases that other lawyers described as unwinnable, but the empty feeling inside me never went away.
In the year 2000, I tore my rotator cuff lifting weights and was prescribed Percodan and Percocet for pain relief. Thinking myself smarter than my physician, I took as many of these pills as I deemed necessary. I found a doctor who was willing to sell me prescriptions, and if I could not get pills from him I would buy them off the street.
Eventually, even I recognized that I had become addicted and that my consumption of alcohol had also become a problem; but no matter how hard I tried, I could not stop on my own. I ended up lying to judges, taking money from my client’s trust account, falsifying prescriptions, lying to my family, not coming home, nodding off while driving with my kids in the car – and I can go on.
I recall being so addicted that I would pray to God at night to allow me to die in my sleep because I truly believed the world and my family would be better off if I were no longer in here. I vividly recall in the last few months of my addiction, walking into pharmacies with a fake prescription, hoping that the DEA would arrest me because I could not quit.
Finally, in 2007 a judge recognized my substance-abuse problem and blew the whistle on me. I felt like I had hit rock bottom, which to my surprise seemed to give me the strength I needed to seek help from others. I immediately checked into a detox facility and have been alcohol and drug-free ever since.
Many people ask me what are some of the warning signs that an attorney may have a substance abuse problem. Reading through some of the pleadings filed in the Kealoha drug case I see similar patterns of behavior that I employed when I was addicted — for example, not showing up for work, asking for numerous trial delays for medical reasons.
When I was addicted to cocaine and opiates, I would not allow anything, or anyone to get in the way of my need to seek and get my pills and cocaine. Reading some of the pleadings in the Kealoha drug case reminds me of me i.e. the lies and stories I had to come up with and tell people to either explain my behavior or to get them to do what I wanted them to do.
An active drug addict lawyer is a master manipulator of people. Seeking drugs and paying for my drugs became a full-time job. In my last two years of using my habit was $1,000 a day and my tolerance for opiates had grown so much over the years, that I needed at least one prescription of Percocet/oxycontin every day.
The lies build up; the schemes become more complex and outrageous.
Frequently I needed to get my cases postponed, and the best scheme I could come up with that would justify a continuance of the trial or hearing was to tell the judge and others I had a deadly illness!
Why a fatal disease? Because it allows most judges and opposing parties to feel sorry for me and grant the continuances out of sympathy.
As documented in several Civil Beat articles, I see similar “addict behavior” in Katherine Kealoha. When Civil Beat combined Kealoha’s sick leave and vacation leave from the prosecuting attorney’s office it “accounted for 374 days out of the office or nearly 75 work weeks.”
I did the same thing. I would tell judges that I had ALS, and sometimes I would nod off while sitting at counsel table and I would tell the judge I was stressed and overworked and did not get much sleep.
An active drug addict lawyer is a master manipulator of people.
Again, Kathrine may indeed have to be treated for cancer and if so, I do pray she recovers, but it’s not unusual for an addict to grossly exaggerate a condition or illness in order to generate self-pity and manipulate others to get their way. Those readers who had or have a family member, or close friend, that was or is addicted to drugs or alcohol will probably recognize this behavior as another sign that a person may be struggling with addiction.
Shortly after I got sober in 2007, some of my former clients filed motions and complaints as a result of my behavior while addicted to opiates and cocaine. I was ashamed to learn that there were some clients that I just did not remember representing. Some of those cases had to be reversed.
How did I recover?
Hitting my rock bottom humbled me, the publicity about my wrongdoing, losing my law license, and going to prison was a harrowing experience. I can relate to what Kealoha and her brother are going through. My misdeeds and crimes were all over the news in Ohio. I sought help through the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program, and I went to detox, and I attended a lot of 12 step meetings.
My wife found a job here in Hawaii in 2008. I was ordered to go to meetings of Hawaii Attorneys and Judges Assistance Program where I was then asked to speak at the William S. Richardson School of Law to Professor Randall Roth’s ethics class.
After talking to over 100 students about all of the stuff I had done and how I ruined my life and harmed the lives of others, I returned to Ohio, admitted my wrongs and pleaded guilty to the felony of obtaining controlled substances by fraudulent means. I was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison.
I learned in my recovery that if I wanted to stay sober if I wanted to change my life, I had to accept responsibility for my wrongs, not make excuses and be willing to make my mistakes right.
So here’s how that nightmare turned out for me. In 2010, I was sent from prison to a halfway house in Kalihi. Professor Roth hired me as a research assistant, and that evolved into an office-support position in the law school’s Hawaii Innocence Project.
I also volunteered to co-teach the professional responsibility course with Professor Roth, and after that course went well, Dean Avi Soifer invited me to teach another course on my own as an adjunct professor. Before long I had one of the heaviest teaching loads at the law school. I currently serve as a co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project. I am a tenure-track faculty member teaching criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence and … ethics (God has a sense of humor).
If Katherine Kealoha or other attorneys are struggling with the disease of addictions, I would strongly suggest that they seek help through the Hawaii Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, so you don’t have to go through what I went through and what Katherine and other attorneys are going through in pending indictment.
For me, the only way I was able to win my battle with drug addiction was to surrender.
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