HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Big Island firefighter has been charged with conspiracy to obstruct after allegedly lying to the federal grand jury that eventually indicted Honolulu's ex-police chief and his deputy prosecutor wife.
It's an explosive new development in the public corruption case against former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine.
For more than a year, the FBI has been investigating whether Katherine Kealoha was having an affair with Hawaii County Battalion Chief Jesse Ebersole — and using money stolen from her relatives to pay for secret rendezvous with him, including flight tickets, hotel rooms and cash.
On April 20, 2017, Hawaii News Now cameras spotted Ebersole leaving the grand jury room visibly upset and trying to avoid having his picture taken. Just minutes earlier, court documents filed Monday allege, Ebersole lied, testifying, under oath, about the "true nature of their intimate relationship" and instead insisted that he and Kealoha were "just friends."
Months later, in October 2017, after conferring with Kealoha again, Ebersole allegedly reiterated those statements to the grand jury, saying that he did not have a romantic relationship with Kealoha and that he was "baffled" as to why airline tickets in his name would appear on Kealoha's credit card statement.
"The feds were following the money on how the money was spent, the money that was allegedly stolen from Florence Puana and my client, Gerard Puana," says Federal Public Defender Alexander Silvert, who represented Puana when the Kealohas accused him of a crime he did not commit.
"Had (Ebersole) come in and simply told the truth in front of the grand jury, it might have been embarrassing that they were having an affair, but there's no crime there," says Silvert, "But the fact that he lied is what put him in jeopardy."
In a statement issued Tuesday, Hawaii County Police Chief confirmed that Ebersole had been placed on paid leave from the department.
Legal expert Ken Lawson from the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law agrees. Lawson says federal cases involving bank statements and other traceable documents are very difficult to fight.
"When you really think about it, either you're the dumbest criminal in the world or you're so arrogant that you didn't think that anyone was going to check that you were paying for a hotel for a man that's not your husband. That no one would check that you were paying for airline tickets for a man that's not your husband," says Lawson.
Attorney Michael Green believes Mrs. Kealoha didn't just fund the illicit relationship using the Puana's money, he believes that his clients' money was also used to facilitate the affair.
"I am floored by all this," Green said.
His clients are siblings who lost their father as children and won money in a medical malpractice suit. Mrs. Kealoha was the trustee for their account, and federal prosecutors allege she stole almost $200,000 from them.
It's unclear when the alleged affair between Kealoha and Ebersole started, but the two have known each other for years. The two were Pacific Century Fellows in 2009. And some of the transactions for plane tickets are in the fall of that year.
Ebersole's attorney declined comment Monday. Louis Kealoha's attorney also declined to comment.
The firefighter is set to appear in federal court later this week.
Green said Ebersole's involvement could be a turning point in the upcoming trial against the Kealohas, who were indicted on fraud, identity theft and conspiracy charges. And it sharply undermines the image the Kealohas have shown at court — a happy, unified couple, confident they'll be exonerated.
"Gotta hold hands, it's part of the solidarity," said Green, referring to the couple. "It's part of the defense lawyer's script, it's on page one: Hold hands as you walk slowly together and every once in awhile smile at each other."
Ebersole, who was recently promoted to battalion chief, has been helping authorities respond to ongoing eruptions on the Big Island. Hawaii News Now saw him at one of the shelters for evacuees in early May.
He and his most recent attorney were seen at the federal building last month and it's likely he is negotiating a plea deal. It's unclear if he will be able to keep his job if he has a felony conviction.
This story will be updated.