Honolulu Deputy Police Chief John McCarthy defended himself before the city police commission on Wednesday, saying he did nothing wrong or out of the ordinary in ordering a secret surveillance mission targeting a member of the mayor’s administration. 

Officials have raised questions about the March 2019 operation, which focused on former Medical Examiner Christopher Happy, who resigned in October 2019, and whether it was an abuse of power on the part of HPD.

At the time, Happy was at odds with then-Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office over poor conditions at the city morgue and a growing backlog of autopsies.

He was also one of the only Cabinet members who could not be fired outright by the mayor without a hearing before the Honolulu City Council.

Honolulu Police Deputy Chief John McCarthy defended his decision to conduct surveillance on former Medical Examiner Christopher Happy. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“We did nothing wrong,” McCarthy said. “I stand by the actions that we did. There was no personal vendetta. There was no personal gain by what was done.”

The Honolulu Police Commission wanted to hear more about the operation after Civil Beat published a story last month detailing the operation — which involved nearly a dozen officers from HPD’s Criminal Intelligence Unit — and misgivings within the department about the circumstances surrounding it.

Multiple officers with direct knowledge of the assignment had concerns about it, particularly in light of what occurred under former Police Chief Louis Kealoha, who is now headed to federal prison along with his prosecutor wife and two other police officers who were part of the CIU.

The Kealohas used the intelligence unit to conduct surveillance of a family member and frame him for stealing their mailbox so that they could cover up their other financial crimes, including bank fraud.

When Police Chief Susan Ballard was named as Kealoha’s successor she vowed to clean up the department and change the culture of the CIU, which had gained a reputation over the years of being the chief’s goon squad.

One of Ballard’s first actions as chief was to rename the CIU to the Intelligence Enforcement Unit.

Ballard was not at Wednesday’s meeting because she was on vacation.

During the meeting, McCarthy made clear that he was the one who ordered the intelligence unit to carry out the surveillance operation because he wanted to “keep it tight.”

McCarthy told the commissioners that the investigation stemmed from information given to HPD by the Caldwell administration that indicated Happy could be involved with drugs.

The intelligence officers found no evidence to back up the allegations and the operation was ceased in its entirety, he said. 

“There was nothing wrong with that,” McCarthy said. “We violated no one’s civil rights.”

McCarthy did not provide many details about the surveillance operation or how it began. The commissioners did not ask him for any additional information that would shed light on the origins of the complaint against Happy and whether it was anything more than a rumor.

Police Commissioner Michael Broderick asked McCarthy if the IEU has policies and procedures, and McCarthy told him that it did have a manual of operations.

When Broderick asked if any reports were written about the surveillance mission, McCarthy told him that the officers would have taken notes but those would have been destroyed after a year, meaning no written record exists of what actually transpired or why.

McCarthy told Broderick that Ballard knew of the operation, but that it was not something that would normally be shared with the police commission.

“If I told you about everything we did we wouldn’t have enough Wednesdays in the month,” McCarthy said.

Chairwoman Shannon Alivado similarly did not press McCarthy for details. Instead, she said the “elephant in the room” was the fact that officers had complained anonymously to the press rather than come forward with their concerns.

McCarthy agreed with Alivado, saying he wishes the officers would have come to him first.

Lieutenant Governor Doug Chin speaks at a rally/demonstration along Ala Moana Boulevard fronting the Federal Building speaking out against Tuesday's 5 to 4 supreme court vote upholding President Trump's travel ban against foreign travelers entering the US.
Doug Chin, a former Hawaii Attorney General, was the only police commissioner to highlight the concerns raised by a covert surveillance operation targeting Happy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He bemoaned the whistleblowers who have been complaining about low morale during Ballard’s tenure as well as journalists who have reported on their complaints.

Ballard has been under fire in recent months for everything from rampant overtime abuse involving coronavirus relief aid to low crime clearance rates.

Commissioner Doug Chin was the only commissioner to question the appropriateness of the operation, saying that the Kealoha scandal has left a lingering “trauma” for him and others in the community that make further inquiry into IEU operations necessary.

“I think what’s more bothersome is the idea that very high elected officials, like the mayor or the police chief herself or himself has that kind of access to the Intelligence Enforcement Unit where they get some sort of special investigation that takes place,” Chin said.

“I see how there’s a use for a special unit like that. I don’t know what’s the right way to make sure that what happened in the Kealoha matter doesn’t happen again,” he added.

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