Niall Silva might have helped the U.S. Justice Department make its case against former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, but that wasn’t enough to keep him out of federal prison.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright sentenced Silva to nine months behind bars for his part in helping the Kealohas frame Katherine’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft of their mailbox in 2013 as part of an elaborate scheme to settle a family dispute over money.
In a related case involving Jesse Ebersole, who acknowledged having an affair with Katherine Kealoha, Seabrigtht handed down a much lighter sentence in large part because he said Ebersole was duped by Kealoha, a former city prosecutor, into lying on her behalf.
Seabright ignored prosecutors’ pleas for leniency for Silva based on his cooperation, saying he wanted other police officers to know they would not get off so easily, even if they came clean after falsifying reports and repeatedly lying to federal investigators.
“He lied and he lied and he lied and he lied and he lied,” Seabright said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat had asked the court to give Silva probation and sentence him to 10 months of home detention.
The terms were agreed to by Silva and his defense attorney, William Harrison, but neither could convince Seabright to change his mind.
“The message that you can lie as you did for as long as you did, obstruct the truth seeking function for as long as you did and then at a late stage come clean and get no jail time is the wrong message,” Seabright said. “I think it’s a dangerous one.”
Silva was the first Honolulu police officer charged with a crime for helping frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, Gerard Puana.
Silva had falsified documents related to the mailbox theft and lied on the witness stand during Puana’s criminal trial. He pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge in December 2016 while Louis Kealoha was still Honolulu’s police chief.
Silva’s admission sparked a series of events that ultimately led to Kealoha being forced into retirement by the Honolulu Police Commission, albeit with full pension and benefits and a $250,000 severance package that allowed him to leave HPD in “good standing.”
During his sentencing hearing, Silva said he never meant to harm Puana or his family through his actions. He also said he was forced into a difficult position.
“I was doing my job and I thought I was being honorable by protecting the chief and the department, but we’re here and I’m truly sorry,” Silva said. “It’s never going to happen again.”
Seabright took issue with the argument that Silva was simply following orders.
When Wheat tried to make a similar argument as to why Silva should not go to prison, Seabright balked.
“It doesn’t work in a war crime tribunal and it doesn’t work here, Mr. Wheat,” Seabright said.
Seabright took a different approach with Jesse Ebersole, a retired firefighter from the Big Island, who was charged with lying to federal investigators about his affair with Katherine Kealoha.
Ebersole had pleaded guilty to conspiracy in July 2108. Seabright sentenced him to probation with 500 hours of community service.
According to court records, Kealoha had showered Ebersole with thousands of dollars in gifts using money she had stolen from her grandmother via a shady reverse mortgage scheme.
She would fly Ebersole between the Big Island and Oahu to carry out their affair. She also cut him a direct check for nearly $1,400 using an alias, Alison Lee Wong, that she had used on several occasions to cover up for her other crimes.
In court records, prosecutors had described Ebersole’s conduct as “out of character” and pointed out that after his 27-year career as a firefighter he went to work as a special projects coordinator for a homeless services center.
Ebersole’s attorney, Donald Wilkerson, told Seabright that his client was ignorant of the many crimes Katherine Kealoha had committed. He didn’t know about her scheme to frame her uncle or any of the other financial crimes she eventually pleaded guilty to.
“Hurricane Katherine swept through this court and through this state and wreaked havoc on not just Mr. Ebersole and the community, but quite a number of people,” Wilkerson said.
Seabright was sympathetic to the argument. Kealoha had been a well-respected attorney in the community and was one of the highest-ranking deputy prosecutors for the City and County of Honolulu.
She convinced Ebersole to lie to a federal grand jury about their relationship. She also directed him to another attorney, Christopher Woo, who told him to do the same.
Woo, who has since been arrested on charges unrelated to the Kealoha case and suspended from practicing law, was described by Seabright as “bizarre.”
“Mrs. Kealoha was a master at manipulation,” Seabright said. “That was evident from everything I’ve seen and she manipulated you.”
Wednesday’s judgments signal the end of just one chapter in the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into corruption and abuse of power in Hawaii’s government institutions.
In addition to the mailbox case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat and his special team of prosecutors from San Diego have been probing alleged wrongdoing by former Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro and former Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, who was a top ranking member of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s cabinet while he was in office.
Kaneshiro was an ardent defender of Katherine Kealoha during her time working for him, going to bat for her even while she was under investigation.
Witnesses have also been called to testify before a federal grand jury about the city purchasing an apartment complex from one of Kaneshiro’s political donors for $5.5 million shortly after she bought it for $4.5 million.
The investigation into Leong centers on her role in negotiating a $250,000 severance package for Louis Kealoha in 2017 after he was officially named a target of the DOJ’s criminal investigation.
Leong crafted the deal — which allowed Kealoha to retire in “good standing” — in secret with Kealoha’s attorneys and former Honolulu Police Commission chairman Max Sword.
She had described the payout as a “take it or leave it” proposition. A state court judge has ordered Kealoha to pay back the money, although it’s still unclear how long it will be until that happens.
Leong is not the only member of former mayor Kirk Caldwell’s cabinet to come under DOJ scrutiny.
Roy Amemiya, who was Caldwell’s managing director while he was in office, was notified he’s a subject of the grand jury investigation, meaning his conduct falls within the scope of the probe but does not necessarily indicate he’s suspected of criminal conduct.
Katherine Kealoha’s brother, Rudolph Puana, also faces a series of criminal charges stemming from allegations he and his sister were running a prescription drug ring.
Puana is a double-board certified anesthesiologist who operated pain clinics in Hawaii. He’s been accused of trading prescription medication, such as fentanyl and oxycodone, for cocaine to feed his and his sister’s drug habit.
Kealoha already pleaded guilty to a lesser crime of using her position as a prosecutor to cover up for the alleged illegal activity.
Puana’s trial is scheduled for April 20.
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