The numbers didn’t add up.
It was one of the first things Letha DeCaires noticed after she was assigned in September 2014 to investigate then-Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, who was one of the highest-ranking prosecutors in the city.
DeCaires, a former police officer, was working for the Honolulu Ethics Commission, one of the few independent oversight agencies in Hawaii government.
Her boss, Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto, wanted her to look at the Kealohas’ financial disclosure forms — which all city employees were required to file — to see if there were any discrepancies.
The Kealohas had reported different information on their disclosures, not something one would typically find with a married couple living under the same roof.
Totto and DeCaires didn’t understand it then, but what they had found was a window into the Kealohas’ alleged criminal enterprises, crimes that would later be detailed in a 2017 indictment by the U.S. Justice Department.
“Where you have smoke there’s the possibility of fire,” DeCaires says. “What at first appeared to be so benign was a raging inferno.”
Totto and DeCaires knew the stakes of their investigation, of which the financial disclosures were only a part. They were about to take on the police chief and his prosecutor wife, a politically connected power couple that had access to every level of Honolulu law enforcement.
They expected backlash, but not of the sort they ultimately experienced.
There was outside pressure from Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration.
They were ousted from their jobs after their own commission — which was supposed to support their review of the Kealohas — turned on them.
They also faced a lawsuit that targeted them both professionally and personally.
“It’s the betrayals that really get to you,” Totto says. “We knew we were going to have some dues to pay, but you don’t expect to be this level of collateral damage.”
For years Totto and DeCaires avoided talking publicly about their experiences with the Kealohas and the ethics commission.
That all changed June 27 when a jury convicted the Kealohas and two Honolulu police officers on federal charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
In interviews with Civil Beat after the verdict, Totto and DeCaires talked about their investigations of the Kealohas and the personal and professional price they’ve paid.
The first complaints came in around June 2014. There were concerns within the department about how the Honolulu Police Department handled an investigation into their chief’s stolen mailbox.
Police cameras had been installed at the Kealohas’ Kahala house and dozens of officers, some of them assigned to the secretive Criminal Intelligence Unit, had been conducting 24-hour surveillance of Katherine’s uncle, Gerard Puana, even before he was officially named as a suspect.
Totto and DeCaires were interested — it looked like an abuse of city resources. But they were also busy.
In 2014, they were in the midst of one of their largest ethics investigations to date, one involving Honolulu’s $9 billion rail project and former City Councilman Romy Cachola, who admitted accepting numerous gifts from lobbyists in violation of ethics rules.
Cachola paid a $50,000 ethics fine — the largest in city history —and then accused other council members of ethics violations, too. That spurred a whole new round of investigations that made city officials uncomfortable.
The settlement, however, freed up time for Totto and DeCaires to circle back on the Kealohas, and by the summer of 2015 they had opened at least 17 separate investigations into the couple. Some were related to the misuse of city resources and others dealt with conflicts of interest and the abuse of their positions.
Dozens of witnesses needed to be interviewed before an official notice of alleged ethics violation could be lodged.
The simplest case to resolve, or so it seemed, involved the financial disclosures.
All the Kealohas had to do was submit new paperwork with the correct information, something that happens all the time in city government. The couple likely would have walked away without any serious punishment.
That’s why it was such a surprise when the Kealohas reacted so strongly.
“It’s not a big deal, yet we received multiple letters from the Kealohas about how this was all part of a conspiracy against them,” Totto said.
“If they just said, ‘Oh, we made a mistake, and here are our corrected disclosures,’ I don’t even know if it would have resulted in a slap on the wrist. We just would have told them, ‘Don’t do that again.’ But that’s not how it turned out.”
Unbeknownst to Totto and DeCaires, the federal government would soon become very interested in the Kealohas.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office dismissed the criminal charges for the mailbox theft against Gerard Puana in December 2014. After Puana’s defense attorney complained his client had been framed, the FBI took over and a special prosecutor was appointed in 2015 to conduct a grand jury investigation into corruption within Hawaii law enforcement.
Two years later, in October 2017, the Kealohas and four Honolulu police officers were indicted on a series of charges related to the mailbox conspiracy. A fifth had already pleaded guilty and was cooperating with investigators. The Kealohas also faced a number of separate charges for bank fraud and identity theft.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, the Kealohas controlled dozens of bank accounts and had been funneling money between them to commit fraud.
Totto and DeCaires, as it turned out, were seeing an inkling of the financial issues in the Kealohas’ financial disclosure forms.
In 2015, when it became clear the Kealohas were the subject of a federal criminal investigation, the political establishment began to close ranks around them.
The Honolulu Police Commission, which is the only entity that can hire or fire a chief, refused to look into Louis Kealoha. In fact, it gave him high marks for his work as police chief even though he was at the center of a major corruption probe.
The commission is a volunteer entity made up of mayoral appointees. The chairman at the time was Ron Taketa, who is the head of the Hawaii Carpenters Union and a close political ally of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
Taketa ignored the many signs that his chief was under federal investigation, and instead continued to give him favorable annual evaluations.
Caldwell, too, danced around the topic. He repeatedly avoided questions about the federal investigation, calling it a private matter. When he finally did speak out during a 2015 television interview it was to encourage Kealoha to defend himself publicly.
“The chief has told me he’s innocent,” Caldwell said at the time. “I’ve told him you need to get a handle on this. You need to get out in front of this.”
The mayor often deferred to the police commission when it came to providing oversight of Kealoha. He didn’t replace Taketa until nearly a year after his term had expired, and only after questions were raised about why Taketa was still on the commission.
Even the head of the police union backed the chief.
Tenari Maafala, who was then the president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, threw his union’s support behind Kealoha shortly after the Puana case was turned over to the FBI. He then attacked the media for presenting a “skewed” version of the facts.
Maafala’s loyalty to Kealoha never wavered, even when the police commission forced the chief to retire with a $250,000 severance payment after he was officially named the target of a federal criminal probe.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro also publicly criticized the Justice Department and its investigators, and in particular Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat, who was specially assigned out of San Diego to conduct the criminal probe.
Kaneshiro repeatedly defended his deputy, Katherine Kealoha, even when it started to emerge that Kaneshiro himself might be part of Wheat’s investigation.
Kaneshiro has since taken a paid leave of absence after receiving his own target letter from the Justice Department indicating he’s suspected of criminal activity.
But while it seemed other officials were claiming, “Nothing to see here,” Totto and DeCaires were working in secret on a series of investigations into the chief and his wife.
The Kealohas caught wind of the ethics investigations early on.
In February 2015, Louis Kealoha sent a letter to Totto asking him to remove DeCaires from the case, saying she had a conflict of interest because she used to work for HPD and that she had applied for the chief’s job in 2009, the same year he was selected for the post.
He asked that any investigation into HPD officers be suspended until an independent investigator could be assigned to the case.
When Totto refused, Kealoha’s deputy chief, Dave Kajihiro, sent a follow up request, saying that leaving DeCaires on the case “fails to serve the public interest and will call the integrity of the process into question.”
“This was our job. We signed up for it.” — Chuck Totto, former Honolulu Ethics Commission director and investigator
Katherine Kealoha also lodged a series of complaints against Totto and DeCaires, accusing them of various ethical violations related to the supposed conflicts.
Her boss, Kaneshiro, had already sent an email to Totto asking him for details about the investigation. He also questioned whether DeCaires had a conflict of interest because she once applied for a job in his office and didn’t get it.
The Kealohas, using the pseudonyms “Public Servant,” “Doe”and “Roe,” filed lawsuits against the commission in 2015 trying to halt the investigations and extract information about what exactly it was Totto and DeCaires were looking into.
In September 2015, Caldwell’s deputy managing director, Georgette Deemer, sent a letter to Totto asking him to provide an overview of his investigations into the Honolulu Police Department.
She said the managing director “has the authority to review and evaluate the management and performance of each executive agency,” and that any information Totto shared would be kept confidential.
Even SHOPO filed a grievance, saying it was concerned about all the officers who were being interviewed by the commission without the investigators disclosing details about their inquiry.
Meanwhile, the Honolulu Ethics Commission was going through its own changes.
In 2014, after Totto had called attention to the mayor’s own ethics through an investigation of a luau to celebrate Caldwell’s election — paid for by donors with ties to the city — Caldwell appointed three new commissioners. The three were former judges — Riki May Amano, Victoria Marks and Allene Suemori.
Soon, Caldwell’s top cabinet officials, led by Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, began fiddling with the commission’s budget, blocking access to information needed for investigations and issuing its own ethics advice to city employees.
Caldwell’s Human Resources Director Carolee Kubo — a donor to the inauguration luau — even described the ethics commission’s investigations into various aspects of the city administration as “witch-hunting.”
Although the three new members didn’t constitute the majority on the seven-member commission, their influence was undeniable and the commission became more antagonistic toward Totto.
For one thing, they didn’t like how Totto had handled the fallout from the Romy Cachola investigation, including public statements Totto made questioning whether certain votes taken in relation to Honolulu’s rail project should be nullified.
In June 2015, they imposed a restrictive media policy that effectively prevented Totto from talking to the press. The policy was quickly rescinded after public outcry, including from Hawaii’s major news outlets.
The following month, the Caldwell administration refused to renew DeCaires’ contract. All of her investigations were put on hold.
The commission dismissed the cases against Cachola’s former colleagues on the City Council and then launched an internal investigation into Totto’s own conduct in the workplace after receiving a complaint about his management style and the way he handled the rail investigation.
In November 2015, after the Kealohas and their supporters had raised questions about the investigations into the couple, the ethics commission told Totto he could no longer investigate the Kealohas due to potential conflicts of interest.
At the time, the prosecution of two cases involving the couple’s financial disclosures had been approved. The commission hired an outside attorney to finish the litigation, which is still pending.
“We wanted to be squeaky clean.” — Honolulu Ethics Commission Chairwoman Victoria Marks
More than a dozen investigations into the Kealohas were still outstanding. But those stopped after Totto and DeCaires were taken off the case.
The commission also hired a second outside attorney to investigate the Kealohas’ claims against Totto and DeCaires, an investigation that continues today.
Totto hired his own counsel to negotiate his departure from the commission. He announced his resignation June 15, 2016.
Just two days after Totto resigned, the Kealohas filed yet another lawsuit against the Honolulu Ethics Commission, but this time they named Totto and DeCaires as defendants as well.
The complaint included more than 1,000 pages of exhibits and rehashed the Kealohas’ many gripes with how Totto and DeCaires handled their investigations.
The Kealohas described their many inquiries as “unfounded, vindictive, unsubstantiated and illegal.”
“You just have to stick to your belief system and know that doing the right thing is the right thing to do.” — Letha DeCaires, former ethics commission investigator
The couple was upset that Totto, when employed by the ethics commission, had a “Trophy Board” pinned up in his office that included the names and faces of various city employees he had busted over the years for egregious ethical violations.
The lawsuit sometimes referred to this as the “Wall of Shame.”
“Totto was less interested in educating city employees as to their ethical requirements, than in creating a reign of terror,” the Kealohas’ lawsuit said.
“Given the level of destruction and terror caused by these flagrantly irresponsible individuals, the negative repercussions of their actions will be evident for some time.”
The Kealohas argued that the fact that the commission pulled Totto from the investigation only proved his malicious intent.
The lawsuit also said that the commission agreed to settle and dismiss many of the cases against the couple.
More recently, Marks has been trying, in her words, to set the record straight about the commission’s investigation into the Kealohas and Totto’s departure.
She also wanted to make clear that the commission wasn’t done with the Kealohas.
During a meeting she called earlier this month, she explained in detail why the commission removed Totto from the case, hired outside attorneys to continue the prosecution of two ethics charges against the Kealohas and to investigate the couples’ own ethics complaints against Totto and DeCaires.
Marks also repeatedly said that Totto left the ethics commission voluntarily and that it had nothing to do with the Kealoha case.
She said that once the Kealohas started filing lawsuits and accusing Totto and DeCaires of conflicts of interest, the commission needed to preserve the integrity of the investigations.
“We wanted to be squeaky clean,” Marks said.
“We didn’t want anything that we did to be tainted in any way so we brought in an experienced prosecutor to take over the cases that were pending against the Kealohas by the ethics commission.”
The commission hired Big Island attorney Lincoln Ashida to take over the financial disclosure cases from Totto in December 2015, paying Ashida $10,000 to complete the ethics prosecution of the Kealohas.
Before entering private practice, Ashida was Hawaii County’s top civil attorney.
He also worked as a deputy prosecutor, where he was a member of a special prosecution unit that took on major cases, including those against police officers.
Ashida was a lead prosecutor in one of the island’s most notorious criminal trials in which he secured the conviction of three men for the rape and murder of 23-year-old Dana Ireland.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Ashida said he couldn’t talk about the pending cases involving the Kealohas, only that the investigations are over and they are ready to proceed with prosecution.
“I can assure you and everyone else that the charges are active,” he said.
Delays have been due to two factors, he said.
One involved negotiations between the commission staff and the Kealohas to settle the cases for a fine. An agreement was never reached.
And then a decision was made to allow the federal criminal investigation to play out instead of resolving the ethics complaints.
“The simple reason is that the federal criminal prosecutions are much more serious,” Ashida said. “There’s greater gravity with respect to the sentencing and potential consequences so the decision was made to just allow those to move forward first.”
Now that the Kealohas’ two upcoming trials may be delayed, Ashida said that decision might need to be revisited.
The commission never tried to bury the cases against the Kealohas, he said.
“I know that there has been some innuendo and maybe even some outright accusations that the ethics commission or its personnel somehow tried to sweep this under the rug, but I can tell you this, that could not be further from the truth,” Ashida said.
Meanwhile, the commission also is still reviewing the Kealohas’ ethics complaints against Totto and DeCaires, accusations that had been filed in 2015.
Another outside attorney, Barbara Petrus, was hired in 2016 to investigate the Kealohas’ claims. That contract paid $30,000, according to the commission, and is ongoing.
“I think we’re moving along,” Marks said. “We’re just doing our job the best we feel we can.”
Petrus did not respond to a Civil Beat request for comment.
Totto says he hasn’t heard from Petrus. Neither has DeCaires.
But DeCaires is not naive. She also isn’t a stranger to political retribution.
In the 1990s she was assigned to HPD’s internal affairs unit to investigate a series of sexual harassment allegations made by a civilian employee who had accused an assistant chief of forcing her to have sex with him so that her contract would get renewed.
DeCaires was also investigating whether her own boss, then-Honolulu police chief Michael Nakamura, had retaliated against the woman for making the complaint.
The woman eventually won a $612,000 settlement with the city that included provisions that HPD employees receive sexual harassment training and that an anonymous hotline be set up so that others could safely report their own allegations of wrongdoing.
DeCaires said her involvement in the case hurt her career. She was forced to interview her own colleagues and develop findings that upset the higher-ups.
She was accused of leaking information to the media, something she says was not true. She also said her expected promotion to a higher rank never materialized.
That experience, she said, prepared her for what was to come in the Kealoha investigation.
“You just have to stick to your belief system and know that doing the right thing is the right thing to do,” DeCaires said.
Still, the Kealohas’ lawsuit effectively silenced and segregated her.
“Had people paid better attention upfront this whole thing might have gone down differently, that’s what I think.” — David DeCaires
In 2015, when the Caldwell administration didn’t renew her contract, DeCaires was helping take care of her elderly mother who died last year after a series of health complications.
Meanwhile, DeCaires tried to find jobs as an investigator at other government agencies and in the private sector. Each time she received an offer, she said, it was rescinded because of the Kealohas’ pending lawsuit and potential liability for the employer. That lawsuit has since been dismissed.
DeCaires’ husband, David, suffered from kidney failure, which further pinched her financial resources.
Their only income was DeCaires’ pension from HPD. The fact that she lived in a multigenerational household that included her adult daughter and son-in-law, both of whom had jobs, also helped.
To make ends meet, DeCaires turned to her past. She became a substitute teacher.
Her friends, some of whom were still in the department, started to back away. That was especially true when Louis Kealoha was still chief, she said.
She says she was disinvited to birthday parties. At funerals for former officers she would sit in the back doing her best to avoid contact with anyone still working at HPD. She feared they might become targets of retaliation by others in the department.
“It was isolating,” DeCaires said. “People that were seen with me, especially if they were still on active duty, might have found their lives become more difficult if it was perceived that we were friends.”
It didn’t get any better even when Kealoha retired, she said. Many of his allies were still in the department, some of them holding on to positions of influence.
DeCaires even built a wall between her and her husband. Because she was sworn to secrecy, she couldn’t tell him much beyond the generalities. To learn what he could, he turned to the news media. He began saving clips from the newspaper and printing articles he found online.
He put it all in chronological order and memorialized the stories in binders he now keeps on a bookshelf inside his home office. It was his way of coping.
While the civil case against his wife has been dismissed, he worries the Kealohas will file another lawsuit.
“I was bummed out seeing our name get dragged through the mud, but she was the one who had to live it,” David DeCaires said. “I don’t know how she handled all the stress.”
He said when his wife first started investigating the Kealohas he would joke with her about how she would probably get fired for challenging their authority. He had no idea how prescient those words were.
“Look what happened,” he said. “Had people paid better attention upfront this whole thing might have gone down differently, that’s what I think.”
Totto worries history might repeat itself if changes aren’t made.
After Totto was forced out at the city ethics commission he took a job with the state ethics commission as a contract investigator, working there for several months.
“It was a chance for me to downshift away from all the ugly controversies at the city ethics commission and still do good work with good people,” Totto said.
Still, the contract was short-lived. The stress from the lawsuit, which was then still alive, continued to mount and he was feeling burned out.
He’d built a comfortable life with his wife, Paula Nakayama, who’s an associate justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court. He could afford to retire.
Depression set in and there were days he couldn’t get out of bed, sleeping away the hours.
He looked for solace in writing, thinking it would help him cope. The feelings of helplessness remained. His reputation had been tarnished and he felt there was little he could do about it.
Despite the insults and the loss of income, neither Totto or DeCaires say they have any intention of suing the city or the Kealohas for what occurred over the past few years.
“The smear job could have been a lot worse,” Totto said. “This was our job. We signed up for it.”
The guilty verdicts provided some sense of vindication, he said, but not complete.
“I wasn’t jumping for joy or anything like that,” Totto said. “I was relieved.”
For DeCaires, there was melancholy.
She had worked for the police department for more than 30 years. The Kealohas and their co-conspirators had forever harmed its image. They were now part of one of the largest public corruption scandals in Hawaii history.
“There are no winners in this,” DeCaires said. “It’s sad that those people who were in such positions of power and influence could have fallen so low.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.