City prosecutor explains why he wants chief’s wife to stay on the job

Always Investigating

Honolulu’s prosecuting attorney has opened up to Always Investigating, saying he will be making no changes in Katherine Kealoha’s job status as deputy prosecutor.

That’s despite her husband, Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha, getting a federal investigation target letter, and Katherine herself being tied to a recent federal plea agreement.

Kaneshiro says Katherine Kealoha did nothing wrong. He also spoke about his role in a speeding ticket dismissal that’s among abuse-of-power allegations, saying the ticket case is being misportrayed as a fix for a friend.

The feds have told several officers and Chief Kealoha they’re in the crosshairs of an investigation, with target letters coming just days after retired officer Niall Silva confessed to obstruction in a plea deal. That plea ties the chief’s wife in as an alleged co-conspirator after reporting her mailbox stolen, in what the feds describe as a conspiracy to frame her uncle, Gerard Puana, in a family financial feud.

The chief has been put on leave, but what about his wife’s county job in the prosecutor’s office? Here’s what her boss told Always Investigating:

“She hasn’t committed a crime. She hasn’t been accused of a crime,” Kaneshiro said. “Anybody can make allegations and assumptions and theories, but this office does not operate on that. We operate on evidence.”

The city’s managing director, Roy Amemiya, spoke on behalf of the mayor’s office Tuesday, the day after the target letters went out, saying this regarding Katherine’s job in the prosecutor’s office: “I’ve not had a discussion with the prosecutor but I intend to do so. … Clearly we need to huddle up to determine where we go with that department as well.”

The managing director has since talked with the prosecutor, and Kaneshiro says his deputy’s role will continue unchanged — no leave, termination or request for resignation.

“I said none of their business. I don’t work for the mayor,” said Kaneshiro, whose job is an elected position.

Always Investigating asked, did the city request him to make a change?

“Everybody’s making that request. Everybody’s pressuring me,” Kaneshiro said. “But it’s not pressure for me. I do what my job is supposed to be. I don’t listen to outside opinions.”

That includes, he says, the opinions of the police commission’s newest member, Steven Levinson, who weighed in on consequences he thinks Katherine may face.

“If the Office of Disciplinary Council is the same now as it was in when I was in the court,” Levinson said Friday after the retired officer’s plea deal, “I think that office would have a great interest in the conduct of the deputy prosecuting attorney in this case.”

“The thing is, he’s a former judge,” Kaneshiro said of Levinson, who retired from the Hawaii Supreme Court, “and judges make decisions and form conclusions after listening to the facts. Does he know all the facts? That’s the question. We have to let the process play itself out and not go into this media hysteria about people losing their jobs, and prosecuting people when there is no evidence yet. Maybe I’m the lone voice in this, but I think the public expects the prosecutor to be fair.”

Always Investigating asked, has Kaneshiro taken any steps internally to independently investigate whether there has been any abuse of power by Katherine Kealoha in her role with the prosecutor’s resources, or also with the access to police resources she might have because of her relationship with the chief?

“Her role in this whole process is an investigative role in cases, and I am aware of all the investigations. I know what the investigations are,” Kaneshiro said, “and I don’t know what other abuse of power allegations there are out there. Nobody has told me what allegations there are, so there is no need for me to investigate.”

Always Investigating followed up, how confident is Kaneshiro that Katherine has used the resources of his office appropriately, or conversely, has he checked to make sure she’s not using them inappropriately?

“I’m very confident. I’m very confident,” he said, “because I’m aware of that, and I’ve spoken to her, and if there’s any questions, I’ve asked her questions about status of investigations, so I don’t have any problem with her being as a supervisor.”

Among the cases she’s still working is one the feds are looking at involving possible abuse of power. Though much of the federal investigation is tied to the mailbox case, the feds are also looking at allegations that Katherine fixed a speeding ticket for a friend, something Kaneshiro says he had to set straight for the grand jury.

“It was not how it has been portrayed in the media that she gave a friend a benefit,” Kaneshiro said. “That’s how it’s portrayed in the media, but that that did not occur. There is an ongoing investigation involving that case.”

Other sources describe that case as cracking what some refer to as the court gravy train — HPD officers trying to maximize pay for court appearances with “ghost” or excessive ticketing, or taking bribes to not appear in court, which helps cases get dismissed. The person getting the speeding ticket dismissed was among those affected by that alleged scam.

“I’ll say that person came forward with information to us,” Kaneshiro said, “information to us that indicate there is more wrongdoing going on by other people.”

Kaneshiro says the ticket was cleared, with Katherine Kealoha in court on the man’s behalf, as part of a cooperating-witness process. We are not revealing the witnesses or targets of the county investigation, nor their many overlaps with people called into the federal grand jury, because none have been charged by the county.

“As a result that person agreed to cooperate with us and there’s a cooperation agreement that was done with that individual, signed by me. Signed by me,” Kaneshiro said, “and wasn’t something that was done by Kat Kealoha on her own.”

He said unlike plea agreements, cooperation agreements are not filed publicly.

“You think we’re going to file a witness cooperating with us, file it in court as part of the public record? Then you’re jeopardizing the safety of that witness,” Kaneshiro said. “But I can say when there’s a leak to the media and there are suppositions, yeah, there’s jeopardy involved, and my concern was presented. I voiced my concern before the federal grand jury.”

Katherine Kealoha did know this person prior to the county investigation getting underway, though, and in course of getting the case dismissed, told the judge the man ticketed was a victim of impersonation.

Always Investigating asked, did Katherine Kealoha lie to a judge to help a friend?

“I’m not aware of that,” Kaneshiro said. “Like I said, Mrs. Kealoha gave the person, not a friend, gave that person a cooperating witness agreement.”

Always Investigating asked, who initiated his participation and cooperation?

“He initiated it, he came forward and presented the information to (Katherine),” he said.

Always Investigating asked, and Katherine came to Kaneshiro?

“To discuss, yes, to discuss the case first, and I made the decision whether a cooperation agreement was needed,” Kaneshiro said.

What’s the timeline for that other case to come to fruition, in which the public might see all of this more clearly?

“Well, I can’t really tell you that,” Kaneshiro said. “But let me just say the federal prosecutor has been interfering with our investigation.”

He did not elaborate on how he feels they’re interfering.

Sources say witnesses and parties to the federal investigation have been told not to talk to county authorities. Kaneshiro said the case will continue regardless of Katherine Kealoha’s status now or in the future.

“We’ve got other investigators and other deputies involved in the investigation and the case. It’s not solely her,” Kaneshiro said.

At what point would or could things change for Katherine Kealoha? What if she gets a target letter?

“So what, what does a target letter mean? That means nothing,” Kaneshiro said.

What if she gets indicted?

“Well, if she gets indicted, gets charged, that’s a different story,” Kaneshiro said, “but let’s see. Let’s wait until that happens.

“Now you have to remember this, people have got to reflect back,” Kaneshiro added. “There was a (county) ethics investigation on Kat Kealoha, with the same allegations, and they went nowhere and the conclusion was they did not have anything. There was a civil case that raised all the same issues, and there was testimony in court before a judge and jury, and a jury came back and reached a verdict for Kat, a defendant in that civil case, not for the plaintiff (including Puana). The plaintiff who made the allegation owes her $600,000 and the jury awarded punitive damages against him, and the media and people are still making the conclusion the wrong.”

Always Investigating asked, if Katherine Kealoha is charged and convicted of something, and Kaneshiro has been one of her most steadfast defenders, what then for him and this office to bounce back from that?

“Well, my position is, as a prosecutor, to seek justice, and to seek justice is to base when you charge or don’t charge a crime is based on evidence,” Kaneshiro said. “I don’t make a decision before we see all the evidence.”

Always Investigating asked, has Kaneshiro or anyone else in his office received a target letter from the federal authorities?

“I haven’t,” Kaneshiro said. “I guess I better keep checking my mail to see whether there is.”

Always Investigating followed that quip to clarify: Does Kaneshiro expect that the investigation could turn its eye on him?

“I’m not concerned about that,” Kaneshiro said. “The reason I’m not concerned about that is I’m not involved in any criminal activities. So what if it turns its eye on me? It speaks about the system. Something is wrong. What would be wrong is a person who has not committed a crime all of a sudden being the target of a federal investigation. People in this town should be more afraid of that than be afraid of the chief and the deputy prosecutor.”

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