To rebuild public confidence in an office that has been plagued by corruption, newly installed Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm is kicking off a 100-day plan.
The to-do list includes an audit of cases touched by Katherine Kealoha, the deputy prosecutor who is now in federal prison for abusing her position for personal gain, among other crimes.
The office will also implement some of the changes recommended by the city auditor in a recent report. The auditor concluded that the prosecutor’s office had not adequately responded to the Kealoha scandal and that more safeguards are needed.
“The mandate that I got from the voters was to clean house and restore trust in the prosecutor’s office,” Alm said. “We’re going to do that in a number of ways.”
The beginning of Alm’s term marks a new chapter for the Honolulu prosecutor’s office.
Keith Kaneshiro, the previous elected prosecutor, had been on paid leave since March 2019 after receiving an FBI target letter. Despite an effort to have him impeached and removed, he continued to draw his $176,688 annual salary until Dec. 31, when he resigned in a letter to the city clerk.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Alm said that eight members of the department from the previous administration have left. That includes Dwight Nadamoto, who Kaneshiro appointed acting prosecuting attorney in his absence, and Roger Lau, Kaneshiro’s one-time special assistant.
Despite embracing several of the changes recommended by the city auditor, Alm was less than enthusiastic about the auditor’s suggestion to establish a commission to oversee the elected prosecuting attorney.
The concept the auditor floated would be similar to the Hawaii Commission on Judicial Conduct, which was set up to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct and disability. Along those lines, the Honolulu Police Commission oversees the work of the Honolulu Police Department and its chief.
As it is now, the prosecuting attorney is not subject to control or oversight by the mayor, Honolulu City Council or anyone else.
Alm said he intends to run the office in such a “receptive and transparent” way that a commission won’t be needed.
“How about giving us a chance first?” Alm said. “It’s one of those situations where you don’t want to change everything because you’ve had a problem recently. I would certainly work with the commission if that’s what they thought ought to be done, but give us a chance.”
A new team of experienced attorneys will help usher in a new era, according to Alm.
Tom Brady was named Alm’s first deputy prosecutor after a 26-year run with the U.S. attorney’s office. Previously he worked for the city prosecutor’s office for seven years. Brady will be leading the review of Kealoha’s cases.
Paul Mow is Alm’s chief of staff. He began his career with the prosecutor’s office as a computer support specialist in 1989 but later became a deputy prosecuting attorney from 1996 to 2010. He has also worked for the county of Hawaii’s prosecuting attorney and for the Hawaii attorney general’s office.
Cheryl Inouye, who has worked for decades as a probation officer and supervisor, is serving as Alm’s senior adviser. She worked with Alm to establish his Hope Probation program in which probationers receive what the judiciary calls “swift, predictable, and immediate” sanctions for violations. While studies have shown mixed results, Alm continues to swear by it.
Former deputy attorney general Matthew Dvonch is now in the position of special counsel for Alm’s office and will handle communication with the public and the media. He will be tasked with increasing office transparency, Alm said.
Florence Nakakuni, a career prosecutor, is heading up the misdemeanors division. She was Hawaii’s U.S. attorney under President Barack Obama and has worked as a per diem district court judge and a University of Hawaii law professor.
Christopher Van Marter, who has worked for the prosecuting attorney’s office for 28 years, is now leading the special prosecution division. He is supervising the units covering career criminal, sex assault, elder abuse and white collar/cybercrime cases.
Scott Bell, who has been a deputy prosecutor since 1999, is now the felony prosecution division chief.
Some employees will remain in their current jobs.
Loren Thomas, a 31-year veteran of the office, will continue in her role as chief of the appellate division. Tiffany Kaeo, who has been with the office for a decade, will continue leading the family prosecution division. And Mark Yuen will continue his role as the chief of screening and intake, a job he has held for nine years. He is the liaison to the Honolulu Police Department.
Along with hiring his staff, Alm said he has been working to outline his vision and expectations.
Part of that is emphasizing the role of the prosecutor to do justice, not just win as many cases as possible, he said. At the same time, Alm said he wants to institute a more data-driven culture in which the office keeps track of its metrics and makes evidence-based policy decisions.
In general, Alm said he wants to tackle certain types of crimes more aggressively including child sex trafficking, domestic violence and white-collar crime. Despite the city’s budgetary constraints during the pandemic, he said “we have got to be creative” in pursuing those areas.
Alm said he wants to focus on improving career development for deputy prosecuting attorneys and ensuring that people want to apply for jobs in his office and stay. That means improving training and instituting a “zero tolerance” policy regarding discrimination, harassment and hostile work environment issues, he said.
Also, all employees will receive bias training, he said.
Given the conspiracy carried out by Kealoha, Alm said there will also be a greater focus on conflicts of interest.
“Kathy Kealoha never should’ve been doing anything about making the call on whether a police officer would get charged or not, given that her husband was chief of police,” he said.
“We want to make the culture here so people won’t even think of doing something like that, and we want to make it front of mind for the attorneys as they open up every case.”
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