When it comes to Louis and Katherine Kealoha, the Honolulu Ethics Commission has moved on.
In February, after a closed door meeting, the commission voted unanimously to drop its ongoing investigation into the retired police chief and his former prosecutor wife, citing their federal convictions in 2019 for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and other crimes.
The decision to abandon the investigation was made quietly despite years of acrimony and high profile controversy, and was reflected only in the commission’s Feb. 17 meeting minutes posted to the city’s website.
“The Ethics Commission’s goal is to achieve justice,” the minutes say. “After a careful review of the cases on hold pending resolution of U.S. v. Kealoha, the Commission has determined that further investigation of these matters would neither achieve that goal nor be in the public’s interest.
“The Commission’s records were made available to the federal authorities responsible for prosecuting the Kealohas. Given their convictions, the Commission’s resources are better spent investigating other ethics offenses and addressing the existing case backlog.”
The commission’s chairman, David Monk, said this week that the minutes speak for themselves.
He added that any punishment the commission could have imposed would have paled in comparison to the years-long prison sentences the Kealohas are now serving.
“Given the outcome of the federal criminal case, further efforts and expenditure of resources by the commission to pursue its own cases against the Kealohas seemed not justified in light of our limited ability to impose additional consequences,” he said.
Monk noted that he was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the entire commission.
Despite the commission’s decision, there are still plenty of questions remaining about the agency’s role in one of the largest public corruption scandals in Hawaii state history.
“It would have been good to have some self-reflection as to why the Honolulu Ethics Commission process seemed to be able to be manipulated and gamed in such a way by the Kealohas,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii. “I don’t know if that self-reflection occurred, and I haven’t seen it.”
The commission was thrust into the spotlight in 2019 after a jury found the Kealohas and two Honolulu police officers guilty of taking part in a wide-ranging conspiracy to frame Katherine’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for the 2013 theft of her mailbox.
That’s because the commission’s former executive director, Chuck Totto, and his investigator, Letha DeCaires, had launched a series of investigations into the Kealohas’ potential wrongdoing in 2014, long before the FBI discovered something might be amiss.
Totto testified during the Kealohas’ trial that the couple retaliated against him and DeCaires by lodging their own series of ethics complaints alleging they were the victims of malicious investigations by the commission.
The Kealohas even filed a number of lawsuits seeking to thwart the investigations.
The pushback had the intended effect. Totto and DeCaires were removed from the case and both eventually lost their jobs.
Totto in particular had long been at odds with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and his administration. The Kealoha matter only added to the friction.
Totto resigned after a series of conflicts with top officials in Caldwell’s cabinet and growing disagreements with several of the mayor’s appointees to the commission, namely Victoria Marks, Allene Suemori and Riki May Amano.
DeCaires, meanwhile, was forced out after Caldwell’s managing director, Roy Amemiya, refused to renew her contract.
Amemiya has since been named a target of the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing criminal investigation into alleged corruption in city government, although it’s unclear at this point exactly what his suspected wrongdoing might entail.
Donna Leong, who was Caldwell’s top city attorney while he was mayor, has also received a target letter from the DOJ for her role in executing a $250,000 retirement deal for Louis Kealoha when he was named a criminal suspect.
“The ethics commission has lost its sense of responsibility to the public.” — Chuck Totto, former ethics commission executive director
After the Kealohas’ guilty verdict, the ethics commission held a meeting in which it defended its actions trying to hold the couple accountable.
Marks, in particular, was defiant, saying the commission acted appropriately, including in the months leading up to Totto’s 2016 resignation, a decision she described as voluntary.
“If anybody wants to investigate this commission in any way, shape or form I invite it,” Marks said at the time. “I have absolutely nothing to hide.”
She made clear that the commission was still pursuing an investigation into the Kealohas as well as the couples’ complaints against Totto and DeCaires, and that the agency had hired outside counsel to do so.
Those investigations, however, appear to have gone nowhere.
In December 2015, the commission hired Big Island attorney Lincoln Ashida on a $10,000 contract to take over part of Totto and DeCaires’ investigation into the Kealohas.
A few months later, in April 2016, the commission hired Honolulu attorney Barbara Petrus on a $30,000 contract to investigate the Kealohas’ complaints against Totto and DeCaires.
Combined those contracts equaled about 10% of the commission’s entire budget for fiscal year 2016.
Ashida said his investigation focused solely on whether the Kealohas failed to file accurate financial disclosures with the city.
He did not pursue any of the other allegations that Totto and DeCaires were investigating, including those related to whether the Kealohas misused city resources in part of their attempt to frame Puana.
Ashida said he did not want to investigate the case at the same time as federal prosecutors for fear of interfering. Instead, he said the commission turned over what information it had to help the criminal investigation succeed.
“Some people may not like the fact that I made the recommendation to back off on this, but I think it was the right one.” — Lincoln Ashida
Once the Kealohas were convicted, Ashida said, he recommended that the commission drop its pursuit of the financial disclosure case because at most it would result in a $100 fine and a requirement that the Kealohas, who are already in prison, update their city paperwork.
“We already got some good mileage out of this case and there’s no point in spending good taxpayer money going after something we wouldn’t get or need anyway, which are corrected disclosures,” Ashida said.
“Some people may not like the fact that I made the recommendation to back off on this, but I think it was the right one.”
The investigation into Totto and DeCaires appears to have ended even more quietly.
Neither Petrus nor Ethics Commission Executive Director Jan Yamane responded to Civil Beat’s request for comment on the investigation.
Totto said this week in the nearly five years since the commission approved its contract with Petrus he’s never been contacted about the Kealohas’ complaints, which he described as frivolous.
More concerning, he said, is that the commission never seemed to address the underlying problems, which is what to do when a suspect starts to file complaints against an investigator with the intent of getting them removed from the case.
He said the commission could have easily investigated and dismissed the complaints without taking him off the investigation.
The commission, too, missed an opportunity to make a public proclamation about the Kealohas’ many ethical misdeeds and use it as an example of what not to do as a city employee. At the very least, he said, it could have been used as a “teachable moment.”
Totto said there are lingering concerns about whether the commission acted appropriately and whether it can be trusted in the future to take on serious allegations of ethical misconduct by city workers.
He said he’d also appreciate a simple acknowledgement that mistakes were made along the way.
“The ethics commission has lost its sense of responsibility to the public,” Totto said. “I feel like Letha and I are the poster children for what happens to you when you try to fight government corruption. It shouldn’t be like this.”
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