- Special Projects
UPDATED, Wednesday morning: Attorneys for Katherine Kealoha rested their defense Wednesday morning without calling their client to the stand. Her husband, Louis Kealoha, rested his defense earlier without taking the stand.
Katherine Kealoha’s attorneys, Cynthia Kagiwada and Earle Partington, planned to spend Tuesday defending their client against a barrage of criminal charges levied against her by the U.S. government.
Instead, they found themselves often on the defensive.
Each witness called to testify on Kealoha’s behalf — from a Bank of Hawaii loan officer to her personal civil lawyer — faced withering cross-examination from federal prosecutors.
Much of the anticipation Tuesday, however, revolved around whether Katherine Kealoha would testify in her own defense.
On Monday, after the government rested its case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat said that while the alleged conspiracy involved several actors, it was Kealoha, the former city prosecutor, who faced the most exposure.
“The vast amount of evidence is against Ms. Kealoha,” Wheat said.
Judge J. Michael Seabright informed Kealoha on Tuesday of her right to take the witness stand even if her attorneys advised against it.
Kealoha said that she understood she had the opportunity to defend herself. Her attorneys, however, said they have not yet heard from her on whether she’ll take the stand, but that they expect an answer Wednesday.
“I believe she’s still not decided for sure whether she’s going to testify or not,” Kagiwada said.
Kealoha is accused along with her husband, former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha, of framing her uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft of their mailbox on June 21, 2013, with the help of several police officers.
The motive, according to the government, was a lawsuit Puana and his mother, Florence, filed against Katherine Kealoha accusing her of fraud and financial elder abuse.
Prosecutors say Kealoha duped them into executing a reverse mortgage on her home so that they could buy Gerard a condominium and use the rest of the money to consolidate Kealoha’s debts.
Kealoha used the extra money, however, to pay for personal expenses, including utility bills, Elton John concert tickets and a $24,000 party for her husband after he was named police chief.
Most of the drama Tuesday came near the end of the day when Kealoha’s attorneys called Kevin Sumida as a witness.
Sumida is Kealoha’s civil lawyer who represented her in the litigation brought by the Puanas.
He also represented her in various legal fights against the Honolulu Ethics Commission after it launched a series of investigations into her and her husband, including over the use of HPD security cameras in 2013 at their Kahala residence.
At one point, Sumida had been named as one of the Kealohas’ defense attorneys in the criminal case, but removed himself after he said the couple could no longer afford his services.
Wheat and his team initially opposed Sumida taking the stand Tuesday, but Partington argued to Judge Seabright that Sumida was necessary to refute the government’s claimed motive in the case.
Partington specifically said he wanted Sumida to testify about how he and Kealoha never had any doubt they would win the civil case against the Puanas, which would undermine the theory she needed to frame him for the theft of her mailbox.
“Their case was so strong that they would not lose,” Partington said.
“What kind of lawyer says that?” Seabright interrupted as several members of the courtroom audience chuckled.
“A lawyer who’s right,” Partington responded.
“That lawyer needs more malpractice insurance,” Seabright said.
During Sumida’s testimony, Partington questioned him about the Puanas’ civil lawsuit, which Sumida said Kealoha won “decisively.”
He also said that when Kealoha asked him to get a court to declare Florence Puana legally incompetent, it was in her own best interest.
“What exactly were you seeking in the conservatorship?” Partington asked.
“We were seeking to protect Florence Puana from what we perceived as manipulation by her son,” Sumida said.
“What sort of manipulation,” Partington asked.
“Financial manipulation,” he said.
While Sumida had no difficulty answering Partington’s questions, he struggled when cross-examined by Wheat.
The federal prosecutor asked Sumida about a Gerard Puana trust document that appears to have been forged by Kathrine Kealoha.
Sumida said he understood the document to be fake, but that he had no idea that his client might have been the person who was behind it.
Wheat asked if he could find the notary who signed the trust document, Alison Lee Wong, someone the government says is a fake persona created by Kealoha to carry out fraudulent activities.
“Did you ask whether she knew a notary named Alison Lee Wong?” Wheat asked.
“She said she knew an Alison Lee Wong, but she was not a notary,” Sumida said.
“Did she tell you that she purchased a notary stamp in the name of Alison Lee Wong?” Wheat asked.
“When was this?” Sumida asked. “No.”
Sumida repeatedly said he could not recall specific details about major cases he handled on Kealoha’s behalf, including the civil litigation against the Puanas and the conservatorship case against her grandmother.
For example, he couldn’t remember much about the joint bank account used by Kealoha and Florence Puana to hold the proceeds of the reverse mortgage on her home.
It was a key part of the civil case in large part because the bank statements showed how Kealoha appeared to drain the account for her own personal use.
Sumida said he also couldn’t recall the result of the conservatorship case even though his client lost, appealed and lost again.
Sumida said he couldn’t remember that the appeal was over.
“You think it’s still pending?” Wheat asked.
“I think it is,” Sumida said.
Wheat also questioned Sumida about how much Kealoha owed him for all the legal work he had performed on her behalf. Sumida repeatedly dodged before admitting it was more than $500,000.
Seabright blocked Kealoha’s attorneys from calling Eric Kramer to testify about a June 2011 disagreement he had with Gerard Puana over parking, something that ultimately led to Puana’s arrest for unauthorized entry into a dwelling.
The judge did allow Kramer’s wife, Julie-Honey Dean-Kramer, to testify about her confrontation with Puana, but only on a narrow basis.
Dean-Kramer was on the witness stand for only a few minutes to testify about what Puana was wearing the day he burst into her home to yell at her about where her husband’s car was parked.
She said he was wearing either a bandana or a hat, a key detail considering the jury had heard testimony earlier in the trial about Puana not wearing such items because he likes the way his hair looks.
The man seen in surveillance video stealing the Kealohas’ mailbox was also wearing a hat.
Kealoha’s attorneys called several other witnesses to the stand, including Destenie Turner, a Bank of Hawaii employee who testified that in January 2013 Gerard Puana once tried to get bank statements from her that were for the joint account controlled by Kealoha and his mother.
Turner said that when Puana was informed his name wasn’t on the account, he called someone named “Kat” who then talked to her over the phone.
During cross-examination Wheat asked Turner about that conversation. She said she remembered talking to “Kat,” who she understood to be Puana’s sister.
Wheat then asked if Turner knew that Puana had a sister named Kay and she said she did not.
Turner testified that she told Katherine Kealoha about the incident with Puana. She said Kealoha then came down to the bank and told her that Puana was trying to commit fraud against her grandmother.
While questioning Turner, Wheat noted that Kealoha closed the account soon after.
Kealoha’s attorneys also called Honolulu Police Department homicide detective Dru Akagi back to the witness stand Tuesday to talk about his June 30, 2013, interview with Gerard Puana.
Akagi testified for the prosecution earlier in the trial about his involvement in the Kealohas’ mailbox theft investigation, something he admitted was a strange assignment given his background chasing serious felons.
Kagiwada asked Akagi to discuss an unsolicited comment Puana made at HPD headquarters on June 30, the day after he was arrested in a church parking lot for stealing the Kealohas’ mailbox.
“He uttered to me that he didn’t take a mailbox,” Akagi said.
“Had you informed him that this was about a mailbox?” Kagiwada asked.
“I didn’t,” Akagi said.
During cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin McDonald questioned Akagi about Puana’s arrest, and the fact that it occurred eight days after the mailbox was taken.
Akagi said he was not present when Puana was apprehended, nor did he hear what the arresting officers might have told Puana or what he might have learned after being taken to jail.
“Sir, when someone is arrested they’re informed why they are being arrested, correct?” McDonald asked.
“Yes,” Akagi said.
McDonald also pointed out that before Puana was arrested — much less identified to Akagi as the suspect by Katherine Kealoha — that anywhere from 25 to 30 police officers had been conducting 24-hour surveillance on Puana for much of the week.
Akagi admitted he was surprised to learn about the surveillance, especially considering he was the lead detective on the case.
He said he had no idea Puana — who he hadn’t yet identified — was even being followed.
Every day, journalists in nonprofit newsrooms like Civil Beat dig deeper into the raw news of the day to deliver in-depth and investigative reporting that engages communities, advances solutions, and demands accountability. This news can’t wait. So why would you?
Give today and NewsMatch will double the impact of your donation. We’ll even throw in a limited-edition Civil Beat t-shirt!