Victoria Marks, a retired judge who now heads the Honolulu Ethics Commission, issued a challenge Wednesday to those seeking to undermine her agency.
“If anybody wants to investigate this commission in any way, shape or form I invite it,” Marks said. “I have absolutely nothing to hide.”
The ethics commission is under renewed scrutiny for how it handled a series of investigations into retired Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, who is a former city prosecutor.
The Kealohas were convicted last month along with two police officers of framing Katherine’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft of their mailbox on June 21, 2013, and then trying to cover it up once they were found out. Two other Honolulu police officers pleaded guilty to other charges stemming from the federal probe.
The ethics commission had launched a series of investigations into the Kealohas in 2014.
Those inquiries stalled in 2015, however, after the commission yanked its main investigators, Chuck Totto and Letha DeCaires, from the case and made a series of decisions that effectively ended their careers.
The commission ultimately refused to renew DeCaires employment contract and Totto, the executive director, resigned after a highly public disagreement with the commission over what have been seen as unwarranted restrictions on his work.
On Wednesday, Marks held a public meeting to address the commission’s chronology of actions in regards to the Kealohas.
She also addressed Totto’s departure in 2016, which she described as voluntary.
“The commission wants to set some things straight,” Marks said. “There’s been a good deal of misinformation and we’d like to present the facts as we know them.”
Marks said Totto was pulled from the Kealoha investigation because the couple had filed several complaints against him and DeCaires as well as other legal challenges against the commission as a whole.
To avoid the conflicts, she said, the commission hired Lincoln Ashida, an outside investigator, in December 2015 to pursue the ethics case.
The commission also hired a second investigator, Barbara Petrus, in April 2016 to look into the complaints the Kealohas filed against Totto and DeCaires.
All of those cases are still pending, Marks said.
One point Marks repeatedly tried to make clear Wednesday was that Totto left the commission of his own accord and that it had “nothing to do with the Kealohas.”
Totto, of course, disagreed with that assertion.
The former ethics director attended Wednesday’s meeting and testified before the commission about how his investigation played out in real time and how he never received the support he needed to effectively take on the politically influential law enforcement couple.
“People make mistakes and so do government agencies,” Totto said.
“The ethics commission did not carry out its duty to the public to properly investigate the Kealohas. We’ve heard some reasons as to why that was, but I don’t buy those reasons.”
Totto was the executive director of the Honolulu Ethics Commission for 16 years before he resigned in June 2016.
His last few years were marked by conflicts with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and others in his administration, which was constantly meddling with the commission’s budget and blocking access to information needed to carry out ethics probes.
Totto had the support of the commissioners early on, but then Caldwell appointed three former judges — Marks, Riki May Amano and Allene Suemori — to the commission.
Almost immediately their impact was felt. They tried to block Totto from speaking to the press, they forced him to track his days in six-minute intervals and they slapped him with a 30-day suspension.
According to Totto, the interference continued when he tried to take on the Kealohas.
The ethics complaints that were filed against him and DeCaires were merely a ploy to get them off the case, he believes. Even if there were legitimate concerns, he said, the commission could have investigated them quickly rather than let them languish.
Totto pointed out that it only took 30 days for an outside investigator to complete a review of his workplace conduct ordered by the commission — an investigation that resulted in Totto being suspended for 30 days.
But it’s taken more than three years to clear him and DeCaires of what he described as bogus ethics violations.
Totto told the commission that he would like them to do some “self reflection” to make sure that a similar scenario doesn’t play out again in the future.
He noted that a City Council resolution asks the Honolulu Police Department, Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and Honolulu Police Commission to do the same. He said he hopes the commission at least considers taking part.
Michael Lilly, who is the vice chairman of the ethics commission, participated in the meeting via phone. While he echoed much of what Marks had to say, he also told Totto that he deserves “a great deal of credit and appreciation” for investigating the Kealohas.
Lilly, a former Hawaii attorney general, described the Kealoha case as one of the “vilest” he’s seen when it comes to corruption in law enforcement.
Any assertion that the commission went out of its way to shut down the investigation is inaccurate, he said, in part because the commissioners often don’t hear about an ongoing investigation until later in the process.
He said the Kealohas manipulated the system to their advantage to get Totto and DeCaires removed from the case, and that the commission can’t allow that to happen in the future.
Lilly said any continued ethics investigation into the Kealohas, who both face criminal sentencing in October, is a waste of resources.
He also pushed back on any assertion that Marks, Amano or Suemori used their positions at the behest of the mayor to force Totto to resign.
“I’ve known these three judges for decades,” he said. “They’re honorable.”
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