The feds were investigating Mike Miske and the Kealohas at the same time. Sgt. Al Lee ended up in the middle of both.
In May 2016, some six months after Sgt. Al Lee arrested Mike Miske in front of his Portlock home, a written complaint against Lee was sent to the Honolulu Police Department. It was signed by Wayne Wills, chief investigator for the prosecutor’s office where Katherine Kealoha was a division chief.
Wills alleged Lee had exceeded his authority, acted unethically, violated HPD procedures, and exposed the city to liability by arresting Miske for leaving the scene of a traffic stop near downtown Honolulu.
Wills had joined the prosecutor’s staff in February after 11 years as special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Honolulu office. His letter of complaint to HPD did not indicate why he felt compelled to reach back to an arrest that occurred six months earlier, or what interest of the prosecutor’s office was at that late date.
But Wills’ complaint nonetheless prompted HPD Deputy Chief Cary Okimoto, who worked directly under then-Chief Louis Kealoha, Katherine Kealoha’s husband, to convert it into an internal affairs complaint. Lee was subsequently formally reprimanded for failing to collect overtime for the time he spent conducting the Miske arrest.
Although Lee was cooperating with the FBI, and was accompanied by “a number” of federal agents when he arrested Miske, his contribution to the federal investigation was not raised during the administrative proceedings leading to his reprimand.
Honolulu attorney Megan Kau, who represented Lee in a related matter, said Lee and the FBI had not gone through proper police department channels to obtain approval to coordinate their actions, apparently because the federal agency was also investigating corruption within HPD, including up to and possibly including the chief of police.
In a telephone interview earlier this year, Kau confirmed Lee had been in direct contact with the FBI, including coordinating on Miske’s arrest.
She acknowledged Lee’s work in cooperation with federal investigators was “off the books” and outside of regular channels of communication between the FBI and HPD.
FBI agents were necessarily walking a tightrope as they sought to balance two parallel and potentially conflicting investigations.
On the one hand, the agency began its investigation of Miske’s alleged racketeering enterprise in March 2014.
Then in December 2014, the office of then-U.S. Attorney Flo Nakakuni referred allegations of corruption within the Honolulu Police Department to the FBI for investigation.
The allegations had first been raised during the abbreviated federal criminal trial of Gerard Puana, Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, who was accused of stealing the mailbox from Kealoha’s home.
Puana and his attorney, federal defender Alexander Silvert, accused officers of tampering or destroying evidence, fabricating or altering documents, lying under oath, and committing other criminal acts in order to frame Puana for the theft. The officers involved were members of HPD’s elite Criminal Intelligence Unit, which reported directly to the chief.
The Puana trial had ended in a mistrial after Louis Kealoha made improper remarks about Puana’s criminal history during courtroom testimony. Silvert then took the highly unusual step of turning over evidence his defense team had gathered, which he said supported Puana’s allegation he had been the victim of police corruption.
The FBI investigation apparently began in earnest on or soon after Jan. 14, 2015, when Silvert had an initial meeting with two FBI agents to display and explain the evidence.
Once the investigation of the Kealoha case took off, the FBI had an obvious problem. The agency would normally coordinate with officers in HPD’s Criminal Investigation Unit, including often having CIU members taking part in joint federal-state investigative task forces.
But with CIU itself now a target of the new FBI investigation, it was no longer business as usual. Unconfirmed street rumors that Katherine Kealoha had some kind of personal relationship with Miske in the past meant federal agents now had to exercise caution when sharing information about their Miske investigation with HPD.
Documents unsealed in the Miske case over the past year provided new information about the unusual situation.
Less than an hour before Officer Jared Spiker directed Miske to pull over on Nov. 12, three search warrants targeting Miske’s phone records were approved by Magistrate Judge Kevin S.C. Chang and filed in federal court. The warrants ordered three major cell phone carriers, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, to turn over account records from phones Miske was believed to have used over the previous year. The application for the warrant included data showing that each phone was used for a short period, perhaps a couple of months, and was then replaced by another. None of the phones was registered to Miske, and many were obtained using false names and addresses.
The phone he was using at the time of the traffic incident was not included in the search warrant, as its number had not yet been confirmed by investigators.
These were the first warrants sought and obtained by the government since the FBI had opened its racketeering investigation 18 months before.
Miske’s name had come up in several investigations dating back to at least the late 1990s, but these earlier investigations had not resulted in indictments against Miske or any of the collection of drug dealers, strong-arm thugs, tough-guy wannabees, business front-men, and their girlfriends, who allegedly operated as part of, or under the protection of, Miske’s growing criminal enterprise.
The three warrants spelled out in detail the the information to be turned over to investigators, which included all voice mail, text, and multimedia messages, log files, messaging logs, local and long distance connection records, records of call dates, times and durations, telephone numbers associated with incoming and outgoing calls, and location information from Sept. 1, 2014 to the date of warrants.
In addition, the warrants asked for all subscriber information pertaining to the accounts, all payment information, including dates, times, and source of payments with credit card or bank account numbers, along with any and all records of contacts with customer service regarding the accounts.
With the issuance of these first search warrants, the investigation took a major turn. Evidence produced in response to these warrants led to other avenues of investigation, a process repeated many times. By the time Miske and others were indicted five years later, approximately 70 federal search warrants had been approved and executed in the Miske investigation.
Sgt. Al Lee told Civil Beat in a telephone interview earlier this year that the location near the Kamaaina Termite office was not chosen in order to snare Miske, and that Spiker had not planned to stop him.
It was “a total coincidence,” Lee said.
However, when Miske made his telephone call warning Spiker to lay off, Lee was quick to report it to the FBI.
It wasn’t Lee’s first rodeo with Miske. As the night sergeant in his district, Lee had been to the scene several times when his officers responded to disturbances at Miske’s M Nightclub in downtown Honolulu’s Waterfront Plaza, including the notorious evening in January 2013 when Miske was arrested for assaulting a visiting Pro Bowl player by hitting him on the head with a champagne bottle.
Miske’s club had become known in police circles as “the Mecca for fights, extremely drunk patrons and an aggressive security staff similar to the ole (sic) Waikiki Shack,” Liquor Commission records show.
Just three weeks after the aborted traffic stop, Lee arrested Miske outside his Portlock home on a charge failing to comply with Spiker’s order to pull over.
Earlier that same day, the FBI obtained a warrant authorizing agents to search Miske and seize any cell phone or computer he was carrying at the time of his arrest, and to extract certain information, including the cell phone’s unique identifying number allowing authorities to trace it back to a particular carrier and account.
An affidavit supporting issuance of the warrant explicitly acknowledged the agency had advance knowledge of and was coordinating with Lee on the pending arrest.
“On or about the afternoon of December 4, 2015, officers from the Honolulu Police Department plan to traffic stop and arrest MISKE for the aforementioned violation of refusing to obey a lawful order to stop,” the FBI agent applying for the warrant wrote. “I believe, at the time of MISKE’s arrest, there is probable cause that Miske will have a cellular phone(s) on his person. Thus, your affiant believes there is probable cause that a search of Miske’s person will yield valuable evidence pertaining to his pattern of racketeering activity.”
In a declaration later filed in court, Lee said he received information from “a confidential source” that Miske could be found at his new home in Portlock on the evening of Dec. 4.
“After obtaining permission from HPD Captain B. Mahi, I worked in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a number of federal agents to arrest Mr. Miske,” Lee said in his sworn declaration.
Miske was arrested at 6 p.m., transported to the police station, and released on bail. The whole process, from arrest to release, took less than 90 minutes. But it was long enough for investigators to execute the search warrant, seize the cell phone Miske was carrying, and extract key information, including the phone’s unique identifier.
At the time of Miske’s arrest in 2015, Lee’s coordination with federal agents was a closely held secret.
“No one else knew this,” Lee’s attorney, Megan Kau, said.
The importance of the cellphone evidence obtained through Sgt. Lee’s cooperation with the FBI became an issue recently when attorneys representing Miske filed a motion to suppress evidence gathered from the phone, along with any additional evidence that it subsequently led to. They alleged the arrest, which was made without an arrest warrant, was illegal.
“Given the 22-day delay between the alleged offense and Mr. Miske’s arrest, an arrest warrant was clearly required,” their motion argued, pointing to a pair of Hawaii Supreme Court decisions holding that an arrest warrant was required when there was ample time between the offense and arrest to obtain a warrant.
This was one of just four motions to suppress evidence on constitutional grounds filed by Miske’s defense team, underscoring the importance of the resulting evidence, and Sgt. Lee’s previously unacknowledged role in obtaining it.
In an order filed on Nov. 15, Judge Derrick Watson denied the motion to suppress, concluding the search and arrest of Miske were not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Miske’s attorneys produced “not one shred of evidence” that there was any “ruse or otherwise nefarious conduct with regard to the search and arrest of Miske on December 4, 2015,” Watson wrote. Without evidence, allegations in the motion amounted to mere speculation, according to the order.
Finally, Watson rejected the argument that the federal search warrant was constitutionally flawed because it didn’t comply with state law.
“Miske does not cite to any case supporting the notion that such an alleged failure or violation of State law alone refers an otherwise valid search unreasonable,” the order concluded.
Watson also denied two of the other motions. A third, seeking to exclude any evidence seized from Miske’s 37-foot Boston Whaler pursuant to a search warrant, was declared moot when prosecutors said they do not intend to introduce any such evidence during the trial, now scheduled to begin on Jan. 8.
The HPD sergeant appears to have been caught in the crossfire as the FBI pressed its parallel investigations of Miske, and of corruption within the Honolulu Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, while Katherine Kealoha wielded the power of the prosecutor’s office to try to shield Miske and to retaliate against Lee.
Lee was terminated by HPD in May 2018 because of pending charges of driving under the influence and lying to investigators.
The charges stemmed from a traffic accident on Nov. 17, 2016, when Lee’s silver 2011 Chevrolet Equinox careened off of Lunalilo Home Road in Hawaii Kai around 3:30 a.m. and slammed into a Hawaiian Electric building.
Lee was found in the passenger seat, and responding officers reported he appeared intoxicated. Lee said he had been asleep and would not or could not identify who had been driving the vehicle, according to statements by his attorney.
The accident caused over $200,000 in damage to the building and the equipment in it, leading to a power outage that affected “more than 1,000 residents,” according to a lawsuit filed against Lee by Hawaiian Electric.
Twelve hours after the accident, Lee made a scheduled appearance to testify before the federal grand jury investigating the Kealohas.
Instead of being handled as a routine traffic case, Lee’s accident case was prosecuted by attorneys in the career criminal division, at that time headed by Katherine Kealoha.
Lee’s attorney, Megan Kau, charged that the escalation of the case to the career criminal division, was in retaliation for Lee’s involvement in Miske’s arrest.
Lee eventually pleaded no contest to a single charge of reckless driving as part of a plea deal after the case was transferred to the Attorney General’s Office due to concerns about Kealoha’s conflict of interest. The original charges of driving under the influence and lying to investigators were dropped as part of a plea agreement.
In May 2021, three years after Lee’s termination by HPD, an arbitrator denied the grievance filed on his behalf by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, and allowed his dismissal to stand.
The arbitrator acknowledged Lee’s exemplary performance record in more than 20 years as a police officer, but determined the department’s action had not been arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, and she had no authority to second-guess the department’s decision absent “compelling evidence” that it had abused its discretion.
Lee told Civil Beat he is now retired with full benefits, which were not affected by the ruling.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the union had successfully challenged his termination.
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