Pension forfeitures after felonies awaits Senate action

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Whether taxpayers will get a $250,000 severance payment back from convicted former police chief Louis Kealoha now rests on the outcome of a lawsuit the city filed this week. But even if he pays that back, Kealoha will continue to get a six-figure annual pension. Always Investigating looked into renewed efforts to freeze pensions of felony-convicted public workers.

Pending legislation as written wouldn’t take Kealoha’s retirement money nor the benefits of anyone convicted prior to enactment, but it would make it clear going forward that if you break the law on the job on the public dime, you’d forfeit your retirement dollars.

Louis Kealoha currently gets a pension as a Honolulu Police Department retiree, estimated to be around $150,000 a year, in addition to benefits.

“It looks especially bad when it’s someone in that position of authority because presumably they’re getting paid pretty well,” said Sen. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Dozens of other U.S. states block pensions of public workers if they get convicted of serious crimes connected to their jobs. Hawaii lawmakers have talked about it on and off, even back to when Honolulu City Councilmember Andy Mirikitani was convicted nearly two decades ago.

The House last spring passed bill HB1264, which would rescind pensions for felonies on state or county time or using public property; bribery; embezzlement of taxpayer money; or committed against an employee they oversee

No one in the House voted against it, but when it crossed over to the Senate it stalled in the Labor Committee. HB1264 is among the carryover measures in the session that just kicked off.

Always Investigating asked: What’s the best way to get this done quickly, considering there is a carryover measure?

“Normally we don’t do bills from the year before,” said Sen. Brian Taniguchi, chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor, Culture and the Arts. “I need to talk to my leadership. Normally somebody reintroduces the bills for the current session and those bills go through the process again.”

The House bill’s co-sponsor Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson told Always Investigating: “Whether it is a new bill with a different number or this version, I am quite sure that we will continue to pursue this reform. Everyone recognizes that when you are involved in public service, you hold a position of public trust. If you are abusing that position of public trust, then it certainly begs the question of whether or not you are entitled to the benefits earned from your public service.”

Tanigichi points out a new law wouldn’t take Kealoha’s pension anyway, as it would apply to crimes committed only after the effective date of any eventual law.

Always Investigating asked Taniguchi, is there nonetheless an urgency to solve this problem for future people who might behave like the Kealohas?

“Maybe during the session but there’s no timetable that we have to rush it through the process,” Taniguchi said.

KHON2 asked Taniguchi: Do you think there is the appetite this session to get this thing done?

“I think there is some, there’s more appetite than last year,” he said.

KHON2 also asked Rhoads, as his Judiciary Committee would get the bill if Labor advances the measure.

“Because of the scandals with the Kealohas and others there’s some momentum there, so I’d say it’s better than it’s been in the past,” Rhoads said. “Occasionally some elected leader or another leader will go bad and we have a history of that, you could name a number of people over the last couple decades, but not very many of them were paid as much as ‘Number 1’ was.”

“Number I” Rhoads refers to is former chief Kealoha. As for Louis Kealoha’s own Number 1 — or soon to be ex-Number 1 if his divorce filing goes through – co-convict Katherine Kealoha is not slated to collect behind bars. Her former attorney Earle Partington told us this last fall when the court ordered hefty restitution paid to victims: “She has no pension, no nothing, so she’s going to get out of prison with nothing but the clothes on her back.”

The pension forfeiture bill that had momentum last year lets beneficiaries start collecting again after the convict’s death

“Those who broke the public trust by engaging in a felonious activity that’s connected to their employment, then I think losing their pensions is perfectly justifiable,” Rhoads said. “But for someone — a spouse who may have had nothing at all to do with it — or a child, I don’t think that’s really fair to take it away from them.”

“I think for me personally I do have some concerns about the bill in the sense that normally a lot of these pensions affect the whole family,” Taniguchi said. “It’s not just the person who did it right? And they become the victims — if you do pass this bill.”

KHON2 asked Taniguchi, if the beneficiary parts of the matter are solved, are there any other questions that remain for him?

“No, that’s my concern,” Taniguchi said.

HGEA, Hawaii’s largest public employee union, declined to comment. Always Investigating will continue to track the measure this session and report on its progress.

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