Honolulu Managing Director Roy Amemiya is a “subject” in a federal investigation and testified before a grand jury on Thursday, the city said on Friday.

However, Amemiya – Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s right-hand man– will continue running the day-to-day operations of the city, according to Caldwell Communications Director Alexander Zannes.

“We take this matter seriously and look forward to a timely resolution,” Zannes said in an email. “Roy Amemiya continues to serve as Managing Director where he is essential to the initiatives that we have undertaken for the people of the City and County of Honolulu.  He has performed, and is performing, honorably, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

HPD Chief Kealoha Acting Mayor Roy Amemiya2. 20 dec 2016
Honolulu Managing Director Roy Amemiya and former Police Commissioner Max Sword, in the background, have both testified recently before a federal grand jury. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Amemiya received a “subject letter,” meaning his conduct is within the scope of a grand jury’s investigation.

Lyle Hosoda, Amemiya’s attorney, said in a statement that the government asked Amemiya not to disclose the fact that he’d been subpoenaed, but because the news had gotten out, he wanted to “dispel any speculation or rumors and in the interest of transparency.”

“To honor the government’s desire to protect the investigation, Mr. Amemiya will not be publicly disclosing the specifics of his testimony, or the subject matter he was questioned about,” Hosoda said.

Hosoda noted that Amemiya is not a “target” of the federal investigation and has not been accused of a crime.

“His designation as a ‘subject’ is not a surprise, given that Mr. Amemiy is a high-level city official,” Hosoda said.

Hosoda did not immediately return calls from Civil Beat. He is being paid by Amemiya personally, not by taxpayers, Zannes said.

Amemiya is now the highest-ranking, non-elected city official to become embroiled in a federal probe. It’s unclear on what case he was called to testify. It could be about the federal investigation into Honolulu police corruption which has already resulted in the conviction of former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife Katherine Kealoha, a former city prosecutor. The feds have also been investigating the Honolulu rail project, about which investigators demanded information from city hall last year.

However, Amemiya’s testimony follows a recent visit to the grand jury by Max Sword, a former member of the Honolulu Police Commission appointed by Caldwell. Corporation Counsel Donna Leong received an FBI target letter in January 2019.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat, the special prosecutor appointed by the U.S. Justice Department to investigate public corruption in Hawaii, recently rebooted his efforts which had been on ice amid COVID-19.

The fact that Sword is in the mix suggests the feds are still looking at the $250,000 severance payment the Police Commission handed to former chief Kealoha, according to Alexander Silvert, the federal public defender who helped spark the Kealoha investigation years ago. Leong and Sword arranged the deal in secret with Kealoha’s attorney after the chief received a DOJ target letter.

It’s unclear what involvement Amemiya may have had, but the feds seized emails from his office last year.

The January 2019 warrant captured six months worth of emails from entire city departments including the Department of Corporation Counsel, the Managing Director’s office, the Department of Budget and Fiscal Services and Human Resources, Councilman Tommy Waters and Councilman Ron Menor said last year. The trove of documents was related to the Kealoha investigation, the council members said.

The city has since spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on mainland attorneys who worked to claw back some of those records that they deem “privileged.”

According to Zannes, no other city employee, including the mayor, has recently received a target or subject letter “that we are aware of.”

Leong, the city’s top attorney, was put on paid leave from January 2019 through May 1 of this year. She is now running out her paid time off and will transition to unpaid leave when she runs out of PTO days, Zannes said.

Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro has been on paid leave since March 2019 after receiving a target letter from federal prosecutors.

Like Amemiya, First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Chasid Sapolu also received an FBI subject letter. However, he hasn’t worked since December 2018 and is on paid leave.

Asked why Amemiya will not be going on leave while others have, Zannes did not provide an explanation.

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