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Over the course of three closed-door meetings in January 2017 the Honolulu Police Commission negotiated a $250,000 retirement package for then-police chief Louis Kealoha, who had just been named the target of a federal criminal investigation.
For more than two years the public was kept in the dark about exactly how those discussions went down despite the fact Kealoha was one of the highest ranking officials at the city.
Last month, however, the commission and its attorneys decided to ditch the secrecy and release the minutes from those executive session meetings in order to reconcile a lawsuit that threatened to overturn the whole deal.
“The meetings concerned the expenditure of a great deal of public money and the public has a right to know who and why the police commission decided to spend its money,” Honolulu Police Commission Chairwoman Loretta Sheehan said Monday.
“Moreover, this police commission, as currently constituted, understands the importance of transparency and accountability. You can’t have accountability without transparency.”
The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest sued the city and the police commission in January 2017 after the commission held three executive session meetings to discuss Kealoha’s future with the Honolulu Police Department after he was named a suspect in a U.S. Justice Department investigation.
In the complaint, Civil Beat Law Center Executive Director Brian Black argued that the commission’s secret negotiations and closed-door decision to give Kealoha a $250,000 severance package that allowed him to retire in good standing and with his full pension and benefits amounted to a violation of the state’s open meetings law.
Black also argued that, if such a violation occurred, it could nullify the commission’s vote.
City officials, meanwhile, insisted that they were required to discuss Kealoha’s future in private because it was a personnel matter.
The lawsuit eventually worked its way up to the Hawaii Supreme Court, where in June of this year the justices ruled mostly in the law center’s favor, saying that the commission was not required to hold its discussions in private and that government officials cannot be punished for maintaining public access to such meetings.
The case was then sent back to the lower courts to determine if the commission violated the Sunshine Law.
Rather than wait for that decision — something that could take years — Black decided to resolve the case if the commission and its lawyers agreed to release the executive session meeting minutes, which they did during a Sept. 18 meeting.
Black said he also didn’t feel like it was worth fighting to overturn the commission’s vote on Kealoha’s payout given the police chief’s conviction on conspiracy and obstruction charges earlier this summer.
“That was a remedy we could have pursued,” Black said, “but the overall public benefit in light of the terms of the contract and in light of the conviction wasn’t worth it.”
He said the Supreme Court’s decision opening the door to the public on employment related discussions of high level public officials is what will leave a “lasting impact” on public access, whether it be the evaluation for the executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation or the president of the University of Hawaii.
The police commission’s decision to release the minutes comes just three months after Kealoha, his former prosecutor wife, Katherine, and two Honolulu police officers were convicted by a federal jury of felony conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Together they were found guilty of trying to frame an innocent man to help the Kealohas settle a family score over money.
Under the terms of Louis Kealoha’s retirement deal, he must pay back the $250,000 if he’s convicted of a felony within six years of the agreement.
The executive session meeting minutes shed more light on how that arrangement came about.
The bargaining was done in large part by Max Sword, who was the police commission chairman at the time, and Donna Leong, the top civil attorney in Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration, according to the minutes.
Leong is currently on paid leave after it was revealed she too has been named a target of the Justice Department’s ongoing criminal investigation for her role in executing the $250,000 payout.
Some commissioners — in particular Loretta Sheehan — were strongly considering terminating Kealoha. But at the Jan. 4, 2017 executive session, Sword urged them to let him talk to the chief and see if he could negotiate a resignation. The commission agreed to meet again in two more days to decide whether to move ahead with firing him.
Minutes from the Jan. 6 executive session show that Sword had several meetings with Kealoha, his attorney Kevin Sumida and others. The commission discussed various options, including moving ahead with termination, until Leong joined the meeting and presented the commission with a proposed retirement package she’d helped draft. That settlement included the $250,000 payout in addition to Kealoha’s normal pension.
The commission agreed to give Sword and Leong another two weeks to finalize it, and then they’d vote. Sheehan, who questioned the $250,000 from the beginning, was the lone dissenter on the plan to move forward with a retirement package. She would ultimately be the only commissioner to vote against the final agreement.
Black said the lack of specific detail in the minutes isn’t a matter of the commission being purposefully vague. Meeting minutes in general only provide a synopsis of what occurred and are not usually full transcriptions of official proceedings. That means a lot of what was said — even if highly substantive — might not make it into the final minutes.
“Some of these meetings lasted for hours and you only have a few pages of minutes,” Black said. “That’s why it’s important for the board to get it right in the first place.”
Sheehan agreed that the public might be left wanting after the release of the commission’s minutes. For one, the minutes don’t reflect what Sheehan and others said Leong told them about the $250,000 retirement package — it was non-negotiable, take it or leave it.
The real deal-making, Sheehan said, was done behind another set of closed doors with only Sword, Leong, Kealoha and his lawyer, Kevin Sumida, present.
Releasing the minutes, she said, is a way to make up for the mistakes of the past and “follow the letter of the law” when it comes to public meetings. Kealoha’s conviction and the DOJ’s investigation into Leong only add to the impetus.
“I wanted people to see everything,” Sheehan said.
The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.
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