Five candidates vying to be Honolulu’s next prosecutor all agree that whoever’s in the seat next needs to work hard to restore the public’s trust.

Increasing accountability and transparency, and changing the workplace culture were among the top issues discussed at a debate Tuesday night. The five also discussed bail reform, immigration, drug abuse and prosecutorial discretion.

Former judge Steve Alm, former deputy prosecutor RJ Brown, public defender Jacquelyn Esser, former deputy prosecutor Megan Kau and criminal defense attorney Tae Kim took the stage at the University of Hawaii’s Orvis Auditorium hosted by the Hawaii Innocence Project.

Kenneth Lawson introduces the 5 candidates running during the Honolulu Prosecutor Candidate 2020 at UH Orvis Auditorium.
Ken Lawson, far left, introduced the five candidates running for Honolulu prosecutor. They are, from left, Steve Alm, RJ Brown, Jacquelyn Esser, Megan Kau and Tae Kim. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

A recurring topic was the corruption scandal that is sweeping through the prosecutor’s office. Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro received a target letter in a wide-ranging federal corruption probe and has remained on paid leave since March.

One of his deputies, Katherine Kealoha, was convicted in June of federal conspiracy and obstruction charges, along with her husband, former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, and two police officers. Katherine Kealoha also pleaded guilty to bank fraud, identity theft and misprision of a felony charges in two separate federal criminal cases.

Kaneshiro’s chief deputy, Chasid Sapolu, received a subject letter in the federal investigation in December 2018.

Acting Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto, who registered with the state Campaign Spending Commission as a candidate but declined to participate in the debate, received a subpoena in November.

Kaneshiro has said he does not intend to seek re-election.

Each candidate to replace him resolved to lead the office with more accountability.

Ken Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project who moderated the event, kicked the debate off with the question of how each candidate would rebuild that trust.

Alm, who emphasized his experience, said he would create a culture of doing the right thing, while Brown said he would get rid of the rotten people, hire the right ones and hold monthly community forums. Esser said she would lead the office with more transparency, and transition to a culture of “healing the harm that crime causes.”

Kau, calling Kealoha an “aberration,” said she would answer every question posed to her. Kim said he would attend every neighborhood board meeting and increase community engagement.

Most candidates supported diversion and treatment programs in lieu of charging low-level drug crimes. However, Kau came out against decriminalizing possession, saying not charging low-level crimes has led to a surge in bigger, more serious problems.

Candidates were also asked whether they supported the death penalty. Kim said that’s an issue that needs community involvement, while Kau said the prosecutor’s job is to apply the laws that are already in place — a response she often offered throughout the debate. Alm, Brown and Esser came out strongly against it.

On bail reform, all but one candidate — Kau — came out in support of abolishing the cash bail system, saying it criminalizes the poor.

“If we create an alternative, then it’ll be great,” she said. “But realistically, that’s not what we have right now.”

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