After refusing to step aside for months, embattled city prosecutor takes leave amid federal probe

After refusing to step aside for months, embattled city prosecutor takes leave amid federal probe

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Embattled city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro ― who for months has been the target of a growing federal investigation ― put himself on immediate leave with pay Thursday.

Until now, Kaneshiro has refused to step aside, even in the face of a state Supreme Court petition filed by Hawaii’s attorney general in an effort to suspend him.

But on the same day that Kaneshiro was to respond to that petition in court, he told his colleagues that he would take leave and then issued a brief public statement announcing his plans.

On Thursday afternoon, the state attorney general withdrew the petition.

In the statement, Kaneshiro said he has been honored to serve as prosecutor for 16 years and “am proud to have worked with the professionals and staff of the office.”

Dwight Nadamoto will serve as the acting city prosecutor while Kaneshiro is on leave. (Image: City Prosecutor's Office)
Dwight Nadamoto will serve as the acting city prosecutor while Kaneshiro is on leave. (Image: City Prosecutor's Office)

He added, “To avoid further distraction and to ensure the continuity of orderly administration of justice, I am taking leave from my position as prosecuting attorney.”

He said one of his deputies ― Dwight Nadamoto ― will serve as acting city prosecutor.

[Read more: Mayor: Next steps for city after prosecutor’s decision to take leave unclear]

“I have great confidence that those in the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney will continue to conscientiously perform our mission of enforcing the law,” Kaneshiro continued, in the statement.

In a news briefing Thursday afternoon, Mayor Kirk Caldwell applauded Kaneshiro’s decision to step aside, saying it was the “best solution” for the city.

Embattled city prosecutor to take immediate leave of absence amid federal probe

'The right thing for him to do’

Kaneshiro has maintained that he could continue to do his job ― even while being investigated by federal authorities as part of a growing public corruption investigation.

In late 2018, Hawaii News Now was the first to report that Kaneshiro had received a target letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, informing him that he was the focus of a criminal investigation.

Many in the law enforcement and legal communities called for Kaneshiro to step down.

And when Kaneshiro showed no signs of budging ― potentially putting ongoing criminal cases at risk because of real or perceived conflicts of interest ― state Attorney General Clare Connors took the extraordinary step of filing a petition with the state Supreme Court to seek Kaneshiro’s suspension.

In a statement Thursday, Connors said that Kaneshiro’s decision to step down from his office while the federal investigation is ongoing “addresses the conflict of interest created by his receipt of a target letter.”

“This was the right thing for him to do,” she said. "As the chief law enforcement officer of the state, I will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation at the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney and will take action as necessary.”

Growing calls to step down

Kaneshiro was elected to a second, four-year term in 2016.

And in taking paid leave, he becomes the fourth high-level city official forced from office amid the ongoing federal investigation.

Before Thursday’s announcement, Kaneshiro has repeatedly said ― directly to HNN or through his spokesman or attorney ― that his office was operating efficiently and that he didn’t need to step down.

But in recent months, that argument has been harder to make.

The police chief, for example, has publicly expressed concern about Kaneshiro’s potential impact on pending cases and called on the mayor to keep him out of high-level meetings in which public safety matters were discussed.

“I would have a very difficult time talking about confidential information in front of anybody who is under federal investigation,” Police Chief Susan Ballard told HNN, in December.

And just last month, HNN reported that Kaneshiro had been denied access to the scene of an officer-involving shooting. Kaneshiro typically responds to such shootings as part of his office’s review process.

The city prosecutor was also roundly criticized for allegedly retaliating against two of his employees because they testified before the grand jury investigating him.

Also in February, the city Prosecutor’s Office moved two high-profile cases to another agency, citing potential conflicts because of the widening federal probe. Attorneys for the defendants in the cases say they want them thrown out.

“The thing about being a prosecutor is your ethics have to be absolutely pure,” said HNN political analyst Colin Moore. “Prosecutors have tremendous discretion. More than almost any figure in government they can set the priorities of the office. They can use the resources of the state to go after certain people.”

[SPECIAL SECTION: The Case Against the Kealohas]

The federal investigation

The federal public corruption probe that’s targeting Kaneshiro has already led to indictments against his former top deputy, Katherine Kealoha, her husband (the former police chief), and several officers.

The federal probe into Kaneshiro apparently began when investigators learned that Kealoha allegedly convinced a judge to dismiss a speeding ticket against an electrician who was working for her.

Kaneshiro’s decision to step down comes as federal prosecutors prepare to launch the first of three trials against Kealoha, and as federal authorities are also investigating the city’s top civil attorney, Donna Leong.

Leong is on paid leave after receiving a target letter in January.

Caldwell has said she is apparently being investigated for her role in a $250,000 payout and separation agreement for ex-Police Chief Louis Kealoha when he left the Honolulu Police Department.

This story will be updated.

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