Before the FBI, before the special prosecutor, before the grand jury, there was Chuck Totto.
The former Honolulu Ethics Commission executive director testified Thursday in the criminal trial of former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a former city prosecutor.
The Kealohas are accused of framing Katherine’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft of their mailbox on June 21, 2013, with the help of several police officers in an attempt to undermine him in a lawsuit he and his mother had filed against his niece.
Chuck Totto in 2016 when he was executive director of the Honolulu Ethics Commission. He testified Thursday about his investigations into the Kealohas that began in 2014.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Totto said he launched an Ethics Commission investigation into the Kealohas in 2014 after he began receiving complaints that they were using police department cameras at their home to conduct surveillance on the property.
He said he also had concerns that officers from the Criminal Intelligence Unit were being used to monitor the chief’s residence.
One thing he wasn’t concerned about was what happened to their mailbox.
“Our job was to look at whether there was a misuse of city resources and that’s what we focused on,” Totto said.
Totto said the Kealohas began to retaliate almost immediately after he and his investigator, Letha DeCaires, began interviewing people, including officers Gordon Shiraishi and Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen, who are both co-defendants in the trial.
Totto said the Kealohas filed a series of ethics complaints against him for conducting what they described as a malicious investigation.
The first complaint, he said, came in July of 2015. Six more followed over the next several months.
“Who filed those other six complaints against you during your investigation?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Orabona asked.
“The signature was Katherine Kealoha, but I understood them to be ethics complaints on behalf of both Louis and Katherine,” Totto said.
“Were any of ethics complaints sustained against you?” Orabona asked.
“No,” Totto said.
The attacks didn’t stop there. Totto said the couple also filed a civil lawsuit against them and the Ethics Commission.
The lawsuit targeted Totto and DeCaires both professionally and personally, meaning they could have been held personally liable.
He said the Ethics Commission ordered him to stop investigating the Kealaohas.
Totto is expected to take the stand again Friday for cross-examination.
‘Unless She’s Hiding In The Bushes’
After testifying Wednesday, Gerard Puana faced several hours of questioning Thursday, mostly from the Kealohas’ defense attorneys, Cynthia Kagiwada and Rustam Barbee.
Both tried to paint Puana as an angry middle-aged man who was mooching off his mother’s money. They pressed Puana about his past drug and alcohol use.
But it was a cup of coffee that Kagiwada focused on the most.
Gerard Puana arrives at District Court on Tbursday.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
She played video from surveillance cameras posted at the Kealohas’ Kahala home that showed Puana throwing a disposable coffee cup at the driveway as he drove past in his green Ford Explorer.
Kagiwada first tried to get Puana to say he was throwing the cup at her client, Katherine, but Puana pointed out that his niece was nowhere to be seen.
“I don’t see Katherine in the video at all,” he said, “unless she’s hiding in the bushes.”
According to court records, the date of that incident was June 27, 2011, the same day HPD officers arrested Puana for unauthorized entry into a neighbor’s home.
Prosecutors say Katherine Kealoha and other officers, including Nguyen, unlawfully searched Puana’s residence while he was in custody.
Puana eventually spent 71 days in jail and he had testified Wednesday that this was partially because Kealoha told family members not to bail him out.
When prosecutors had their turn to question Puana again, they asked about a document Kagiwada had used Wednesday when she first started cross-examining Puana.
The document was related to Katherine Kealoha’s purchase of a condominium on behalf of Puana using money from a reverse mortgage on his mother’s house. Kealoha is accused of stealing much of the money from the mortgage to pay her and her husband’s own expenses.
During Kagiwada’s questioning Wednesday, Puana pointed out that the document she was showing him appeared to be forged.
He noted the name on the paperwork was “Gerald” and not “Gerard.” The signatures and initials also weren’t in his handwriting.
On Thursday, prosecutors had Puana revisit the possibility that his signature was forged. Then they called Dave Oleksow, a forensic document examiner, to the witness stand to testify about the handwriting on the document Kagiwada submitted, as well as other records related to the purchase of the condominium.
In each case, Oleksow said Gerard Puana’s signatures and initials appear to have been written by someone else. He also said a signature by a notary named Alison Lee Wong also appears to have similarities to Katherine Kealoha’s own handwriting.
Prosecutors say Alison Lee Wong is a fake persona Kealoha created to help her carry out her alleged financial crimes.
None of the defense lawyers opted to cross-examine Oleksow.
Civil Beat reporter Yoohyun Jung contributed to this report.
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues
Support local journalism
Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases. Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor. We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our Honolulu Civil Beat with a tax-deductible gift.