The Honolulu Police Commission plans to question Chief Susan Ballard about a covert surveillance operation in 2019 that targeted Medical Examiner Christopher Happy at the behest of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration after concerns were raised about his work performance.
On Monday, after Civil Beat published a story detailing the operation, Commission Chairwoman Shannon Alivado said she had concerns about the assignment and whether it was out of the ordinary for the department to take on.
“It raises some red flags and begs the question of whether the surveillance was proper,” Alivado said. “It’s incumbent on the commission to do our due diligence and find out more about the situation.”
Alivado wants to hear directly from Ballard before drawing any conclusions, and said she expects the chief to be transparent about what happened and why.
Depending on Ballard’s response, Alivado said, the inquiry could warrant further investigation to determine if there was any wrongdoing on the part of HPD.
“We need to provide her the opportunity to respond, but also be critical of anything that doesn’t pass the smell test,” Alivado said. “That’s our role. We as a commission are responsible to ask the questions that members of the public have.”
Newly appointed commissioners Doug Chin and Michael Broderick deferred questions about the surveillance operation to Alivado, describing her as the preferred spokesperson for the commission.
Chin, however, did speak about his time as managing director under former mayor Peter Carlisle. He said that at no time did the Carlisle administration ask HPD to investigate a cabinet member, although he questioned whether the chief could have said no had such a request been made.
“I don’t know what mechanism there would be for the police leadership to push back against an order that comes from the mayor’s office,” Chin said.
The surveillance operation was launched in March 2019 while Happy was at odds with the Caldwell administration over a backlog of autopsy reports and the conditions at the city morgue, which was infested with rats and had run out of room to store cadavers.
Managing Director Roy Amemiya in particular was demanding that Happy pick up the pace on completing his autopsies.
Happy eventually resigned in October 2019 after Amemiya issued him a written reprimand and warned him of “severe disciplinary action.”
Unlike most other cabinet officials, Happy could not be removed by the mayor unless it was for cause and Happy was given a written statement of the reasons followed by a hearing before the Honolulu City Council.
According to a written statement from Deputy Police Chief John McCarthy, the department launched the investigation after the Caldwell administration reported it had received information that a cabinet member was possibly involved in drug activity.
McCarthy said the operation ended after a week of surveillance because the officers did not find any indication that Happy was involved with drugs.
Doubts, however, have been raised about the motivations behind the investigation and whether HPD was being used for political purposes to help the Caldwell administration get rid of an employee it considered to be a problem.
There are also concerns that HPD used its covert Intelligence Enforcement Unit to carry out the surveillance operation.
The IEU, as it’s commonly referred to, is the same unit used by former police chief Louis Kealoha to frame his wife’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft of his mailbox. Louis and Katherine Kealoha have since been convicted of a series of federal crimes along with several other HPD officers.
Loretta Sheehan was the chairwoman of the Honolulu Police Commission while Happy was under surveillance. She said she had no idea about the operation, but says that the commission needs to find out exactly what happened and who was in charge of making the decisions.
“My hope would be that someone starts asking questions,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan resigned from the Honolulu Police Commission in June 2020 after Caldwell refused to appoint Sheehan to another five year term.
Sheehan said if she were still on the commission today, she would want to know why HPD agreed to investigate Happy rather than calling on an outside agency, such as the FBI or Hawaii Attorney General, to step in to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.
She said she’d also want to know specifically what Ballard and McCarthy’s roles were in the operation, saying that she doesn’t buy into McCarthy’s prior statements to Civil Beat that he could not remember the details of the surveillance assignment despite the fact that IEU reports directly to him.
There are other questions as well, she said, including why the tip about Happy being involved in drugs wasn’t given to HPD’s narcotics division rather than the “dark ops” branch of the department that doesn’t write police reports and has been embroiled in numerous scandals, most recently involving the Kealohas.
“We just came out of a federal trial and conviction of a police chief, deputy prosecuting attorney and several police officers based upon misuse of this unit to conduct surveillance on an innocent person,” Sheehan said.
“You can’t help but look at this and think of Gerard Puana.”
Alexander Silvert, who was the federal public defender who represented Puana in the mailbox case, echoed many of Sheehan’s concerns. He said he’s particularly troubled by the lack of transparency from HPD and the mayor’s office about the origin of the surveillance operation, saying it only heightens his suspicions.
“If there’s nothing wrong here then speak freely,” Silvert said.
He added that if any reports were written about the operation — something Ballard vowed would take place on her watch — that she should release them to the public.
Silvert said the police commission should hold a special hearing to question Ballard and McCarthy about the surveillance operation and that they should ask for details about the origins of the complaint that came from the mayor’s office, especially knowing that there was an ongoing employment dispute with Happy.
“Quite frankly, it’s stunning and outrageous that something like this would occur,” Silvert said. “There are so many things here that need to be unraveled.”
The police commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 6.
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