A secretive intelligence unit used by former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha to frame a family member was deployed again by his successor, Chief Susan Ballard, last year to carry out a surveillance operation on Medical Examiner Christopher Happy, who at the time was at odds with Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration over a lack of productivity and poor conditions at the city morgue.
Officials from the Honolulu Police Department now say that the Intelligence Enforcement Unit was asked to follow Happy after receiving information from the mayor’s office that a cabinet member might be involved in drug activity.
The operation, in March 2019, lasted about a week, according HPD’s official statement to Civil Beat, and did not turn up any evidence to support the allegations.
In an interview with Civil Beat last week, Happy, who resigned in October 2019, said he had no idea that he was the target of police surveillance while working as the city’s chief medical examiner. He was surprised to hear he had been under surveillance and said he found the idea that he was being followed “creepy and weird.”
“I’m floored,” he said. “I can’t believe they did that.”
Happy’s relationship with the Caldwell administration had cooled in recent years. He often found himself in disagreement with Managing Director Roy Amemiya, who was concerned about a growing backlog of autopsy cases.
Happy had also been speaking out about the need for more resources. For years, he complained about being understaffed. The city morgue was also in a state of disrepair. The roof was leaking, rats infested the premises and the office had run out of freezer space to store cadavers.
The idea that he was under investigation for drugs, the former medical examiner said, was preposterous.
“I’m not into drinking and I’m not into drugs,” Happy said. “The worst thing I do is smoke cigarettes.”
Unlike most other cabinet positions, the city charter states that the medical examiner cannot be fired outright by the mayor. If Caldwell wanted to terminate Happy, it could only be for cause after giving him a written statement of the reasons and holding a hearing before the Honolulu City Council.
Emails obtained by Civil Beat through a public records request show that Amemiya appeared to focus on the case backlog at the morgue in the year before Happy quit.
Amemiya hired Charles Wassman, a former assistant fire chief, in early 2018 to help with the administrative work in the medical examiner’s office, paying him $10,000 a month so that Happy could stay focused on the outstanding autopsy reports.
Amemiya also sent occasional reminders to Happy encouraging him to clear the backlog, including one sent on March 12, 2019 while Happy was under police surveillance and had attended a gathering with the mayor.
On June 1, 2019, Amemiya emailed Happy again, telling him he appeared to be making little headway and that he faced “severe disciplinary action” if he did not improve.
“We are past the stage where we can accept explanations, we need you to step up your results,” Amemiya wrote.
“Please consider this a written reprimand that will be followed by severe disciplinary action if your results do not dramatically improve. By improvement, I am setting a goal for you to complete no less than 25 cases per week. Please take this reprimand very seriously. We want you to succeed.”
Happy’s resignation caused concern, especially on the City Council. Ikaika Anderson, who was chairman at the time, told KHON News in October 2019 that he received a phone call from Amemiya about the administration’s plans to terminate Happy, although he was not given a specific reason.
“I’m not aware of any complaints against the medical examiner, but again, the administration did tell me that the dismissal is for cause,” Anderson said in an interview with the news station.
Civil Beat requested an interview with both Caldwell and Amemiya to discuss the surveillance operation and the reasons behind it. Both refused.
Instead, Caldwell spokesman Alexander Zannes sent a single sentence statement.
“We can confirm the series of events as described by the Honolulu Police Department,” he said.
Civil Beat interviewed multiple police officers with direct knowledge of the surveillance operation for this story. Civil Beat agreed to let the officers speak without being publicly identified because they feared retaliation and because it was the only way to get the information to the public.
The order to put Happy under surveillance, the officers said, came from the Intelligence Enforcement Unit’s acting captain, Roy Nakama, but they said he made it clear that he was being directed from above. The IEU reports directly to Deputy Police Chief John McCarthy, who is second in command to Ballard.
Interviews as well as internal scheduling documents reviewed by Civil Beat show that nearly a dozen officers were assigned to conduct surveillance on Happy.
Nakama refused to speak to Civil Beat about the surveillance operation. He hung up the phone immediately when called by a reporter.
The officers involved said they were told by Nakama to keep tabs on Happy to find out if he was involved in drugs due to unspecified issues he was having at the morgue.
The officers said they would follow him through the day, from the moment he left his apartment complex to the time he went home at night.
Each day he stuck to pretty much the same routine, they said. He would go to 7-Eleven in the mornings for his daily Red Bull and a pack of cigarettes. In the evening he would sometimes use the McDonald’s drive-thru to pick up food on his way home from work.
One weekend they followed Happy to the Queen Emma Summer Palace, where Caldwell was hosting a special retreat for his cabinet members.
“It gave the impression that we were going to fight somebody else’s battle.”
After a couple of days it was clear to many of the officers that Happy wasn’t doing anything suspicious. They said they saw no signs of drug activity or anything illegal.
Several members of the unit began asking questions about why the IEU was conducting surveillance in the first place and whether it was appropriate to continue.
Such top down orders were rare, according to the officers interviewed by Civil Beat. Usually the IEU worked its sources on the street and gathered information from criminal informants about organized crime and suspected terrorist plots.
Conducting surveillance on a mayoral appointee was out of the ordinary, especially when there wasn’t a strong criminal nexus, they said.
The officers said they were given little information about the drug allegation or where it had come from, although many suspected it had originated from city hall given what they knew about the friction between Happy and the Caldwell administration.
“If somebody like Dr. Happy was involved in these types of things we would hear it from the source,” one of the officers said. “It gave the impression that we were going to fight somebody else’s battle.”
Moreover, the Kealoha scandal still clouded HPD, which caused some of the IEU officers to feel uneasy, they said.
In March 2019 retired Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha was facing federal charges along with his wife Katherine, a former city prosecutor, for using the intelligence unit to frame a family member for the theft of their mailbox. The federal investigation had been going on for years.
The Kealohas and two members of the unit were convicted of various conspiracy, corruption and fraud charges in June 2019 and last month were sentenced to prison. Several other HPD officers pleaded guilty and cooperated with federal investigators.
At least two officers said they were contacted by the FBI about the department’s surveillance of Happy after a complaint was made by someone in the unit about the assignment.
In July, the city revealed Amemiya was a “subject” of the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into corruption and abuse of power and that he had been called to testify before a federal grand jury. At this point it is still unclear exactly why federal prosecutors questioned Amemiya and what their criminal probe entails.
Ballard, who was appointed to the chief’s job by the Honolulu Police Commission in October 2017, vowed to clean up the department and rebuild its integrity.
One of her boldest moves was revamping what was then called the Criminal Intelligence Unit. The CIU had a long history of scandal and was at the center of the allegations related to the Kealohas’ framing of their family member.
It was a covert unit that reported directly to the police chief and its members did not write reports, which made it difficult to know exactly what its officers were doing in the community. When Ballard took over she reassigned many of the officers in the CIU and renamed it the IEU.
Ballard did not respond to Civil Beat’s requests for an interview for this story. The police department’s official statement was attributed to McCarthy.
When reached by cell phone several days before the statement was issued, McCarthy acknowledged that the department had carried out the Happy surveillance operation, but said he could not remember the details, including whether he had talked to the mayor or managing director about the assignment.
“I don’t know when it happened or what happened,” McCarthy said.
Last week, Michelle Yu from HPD’s media relations office, sent a written statement attributed to McCarthy.
“Earlier this year, the HPD was informed by the City administration that they had received information that a cabinet member was possibly involved in drug activity,” the statement said.
“The Intelligence Enforcement Unit was requested to conduct intermittent surveillance on the individual to either confirm or dispel the individual’s potential involvement. The surveillance lasted about a week and was discontinued after no indications of drug activity were observed.”
Happy, meanwhile, is continuing to look for a new job while struggling to understand why the city administration would put him under police surveillance.
“They ignored me for years and then turned around and had me followed,” Happy said. “It’s bizarre to me and it’s disconcerting.”
Civil Beat reporter Christina Jedra contributed to this report.
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