Michael Wheat, the special prosecutor appointed by the U.S. Justice Department out of San Diego to take on public corruption in Hawaii government, is back at work in the islands after a brief hiatus caused by court closures and travel restrictions meant to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The assistant U.S. attorney has been spearheading a years-long investigation into retired Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a former city prosecutor, that has already led to a series of criminal convictions for the couple after they were caught trying to frame a family member of the theft of their mailbox.
He’s since focused his scrutiny on Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro and Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, a top official in Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration. Both Kaneshiro and Leong have received target letters indicating they are suspected of committing criminal acts.
But as the coronavirus spread across the globe, Wheat and his team were forced to put their grand jury inquiry in Hawaii on hold, causing some to worry if his investigation would fizzle and fade. Those fears were alleviated last week when Wheat travelled back to the islands to continue his investigation.
“One of the things that many of us were afraid of was that momentum would die, things would get lost and people would be disinterested,” said Alexander Silvert, the federal public defender credited with convincing the DOJ to investigate the Kealohas in the first place.
“This would indicate that’s not what has happened and that Wheat is back on the wagon. That’s a good thing. You can’t leave these types of important investigations hanging. People have been removed from their positions and questions have been raised about their actions. If it just hangs there that’s not fair to anyone.”
Among the witnesses Wheat recently called before the grand jury was Max Sword, a well-known lobbyist for the tourism industry and former chairman of the Honolulu Police Commission. He was appointed by Caldwell.
Silvert said the fact that Sword is involved at all indicates federal investigators are still looking at a $250,000 severance payment Louis Kealoha received in exchange for his retirement from the Honolulu Police Department. Sword and Leong negotiated the deal in secret with Kealoha’s civil attorney, Kevin Sumida, after Kealoha received a target letter from the DOJ.
In addition to the payout, Kealoha was allowed to leave the department in good standing and maintain his retirement benefits and pension, worth an estimated $150,000 a year. Former police commissioners Loretta Sheehan and Steven Levinson later described the deal — which they were not a part of crafting — as a “take it or leave it” proposition. Sheehan was the only police commissioner to vote against it.
There’s no indication that Wheat or his team have narrowed the scope of their investigation.
Similar to Louis Kealoha, Keith Kaneshiro stepped down from his post as Honolulu’s elected prosecutor after receiving a DOJ target letter.
Federal investigators have keyed in on Kaneshiro’s relationship with Katherine Kealoha as well as other questionable actions taken by his office, including the purchase of an apartment building using city funds from one of his top campaign contributors and the initiation of a secret grand jury that federal officials have said was part of a campaign to cover for Kealoha’s criminal misdeeds.
It’s also unclear what federal prosecutors intend to do about Kevin Sumida, who was accused of lying on the witness stand during the Kealohas’ criminal corruption trial.
Wheat has declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
His return comes, however, as federal authorities based in Hawaii ramp up their own crack down on alleged organized crime activities in the islands.
The same week Wheat resumed his grand jury investigation, Kenji Price, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaii, announced the indictment of Honolulu businessman Michael Miske and 10 of his associates on charges of racketeering, murder, extortion and drug trafficking.
According to prosecutors, Miske was the long-time ringleader of an organized crime syndicate dubbed the “Miske Enterprise” that operated through a series of legitimate businesses, including Kamaaina Termite & Pest Control.
Miske, among other things, is accused of orchestrating the murder of Jonathan Fraser, a 21-year-old who disappeared in 2016 after getting into a car accident that killed Miske’s son, Caleb-Jordan Miske-Lee.
While Wheat’s investigation is separate from the one into Miske, there are parallels.
For example, Miske has been linked to officials in the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, namely, Katherine Kealoha and Roger Lau, who allegedly interfered in a case involving threats Miske made against HPD Ofc. Jared Spiker, who had pulled him over in 2015 for using his cell phone while driving. According to police reports and recordings tied to that incident, Miske told Spiker he “better be careful of the choices you made.”
“Don’t go throwing your guys weight around,” Miske said. “I can go to the top of the food chain.”
Kenneth Lawson, who teaches criminal law at the University of Hawaii and is a co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, said he believes Wheat’s investigation into the Kealohas and their subsequent convictions helped pave the way for the local U.S. Attorney’s Office to take on Miske and his alleged criminal organization that officials say has operated with impunity for many years.
“Wheat sent a message that you may think you’re above the law, but not anymore,” Lawson said. “It’s a good time for Michael Wheat to come back in town because there’s no way the Miske criminal enterprise could thrive for so long without the assistance of law enforcement and politicians.
“It’s not like the Miske Enterprise was quietly committing crimes behind the scenes. These guys were making a lot of criminal noise for years.”
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