The high court said the ex-police chief acted in his own self-interest, not performing his duties.

The Hawaii Supreme Court said in a ruling Tuesday that the Honolulu Police Commission was wrong when it decided that the city should defend ex-HPD Chief Louis Kealoha in one of Hawaii’s biggest corruption trials.

The high court said Kealoha didn’t qualify for city legal representation because he acted in his own self-interest when he helped frame his wife’s uncle, Gerard Puana, to gain leverage in a civil dispute over money, according to the ruling.

“Kealoha’s duties did not include overseeing a criminal conspiracy to hide his and his wife’s misappropriation of funds belonging to others,” the justices wrote. “Nothing in this record indicated that Kealoha was acting in any way to perform his duties as chief of police.”

Louis Kealoha is flanked by Attorney Gary Modafferi and Attorney Gary Singh leaving US District Court.
Ex-Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, center, is serving time in federal prison after he was convicted on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

In 2019, the commission ruled Kealoha was entitled to taxpayer-funded legal defense because some of his criminal actions were done in performance of his duties as a police officer. The city, however, appealed the decision. The matter went all the way to the state’s highest court.

Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, were convicted in the far-reaching public corruption scandal along with two ex-Honolulu police officers. They are all serving time in federal prison. Other HPD officers also pleaded guilty to various charges for their involvement with the case.

Tuesday’s ruling doesn’t shield the city from the lawsuit filed by Puana for violating his civil rights. That lawsuit was recently settled with the city agreeing to pay Puana $2.85 million.

But lawyers said the ruling does apply to other police officers accused of misconduct.

“You can’t just go in and say, ‘hey, I was in my uniform in my car, and therefore you should provide me a defense,’” said Puana’s lawyer Eric Seitz.

“Police officers have now got to go before the commission … provide some way to convince the police commission that their actions were in some way carrying out their responsibilities as police officers.”

Read the Supreme Court opinion:

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