Council leadership: Taxpayers shouldn’t pay for ex-police chief’s legal defense

Council leadership: Taxpayers shouldn’t pay for ex-police chief’s legal defense
(Image: Hawaii News Now) (HNN File)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a strongly-worded letter to the Honolulu Police Commission, Councilman Ron Menor is expressing his concerns over the body’s decision to have taxpayers foot the bill for ex-Police Chief Louis Kealoha’s legal defense.

Menor, chairman of the Council’s Committee on Executive Matters and Legal Affairs, previously spoke out about the decision in an interview on Hawaii News Now.

Now he and Council Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi have followed up with a letter, delivered to the commission Tuesday, that says the charges against Kealoha in the so-called mailbox theft case shouldn’t be considered acts he performed as part of his official duties.

“These alleged co-conspirators are charged with numerous illegal acts, including misusing HPD resources, abusing their law enforcement authority, fabricating, altering and concealing evidence," the letter says.

In fact, Menor and Kobayashi say, the thrust of the allegations against Kealoha and his wife, a former high-ranking deputy city prosecutor, are that they were “acting as private citizens.”

“The fact that Chief Kealoha was chief of police at the time of the alleged illegal acts does not convert Chief Kealoha’s acts to ones done in the performance of his duty as a police officer,” the letter says.

Last month, the police commission voted to pay for the legal fees in the federal “mailbox theft” case against Kealoha.

In that case, the former chief of police is accused of conspiracy and obstruction of official proceedings.

The Kealohas have been indicted in the case along with three officers, and their trial begins in May.

As part of the case, the FBI alleges that the group framed a man for a crime he didn’t commit — the theft of the Kealohas’ mailbox.

Other legal experts have publicly agreed with Menor’s conclusion that city taxpayers shouldn’t have to cover Kealoha’s attorney fees.

Ken Lawson, of the University of Hawaii law school, says taxpayers should fund attorneys for government officials in some cases, including when they’re accused of crimes while performing their official duties. He used the example of a police officer getting involved in an accident while responding to an emergency, or an officer accused of assaulting a suspect during an arrest.

Lawson says the law the covers the legal fees in those cases so that officers don’t hesitate while making split second and difficult decisions.

“We don’t want to think twice during an emergency," he said.

But Lawson contends the allegations in the mailbox case are not comparable because the Kealohas are accused of committing the crimes as part of a private matter ― a family feud over money.

The City’s Corporation Counsel also recommended on two separate occasions that taxpayers not be forced to fund the legal fees, telling the police commission that: “Chief Kealoha’s acts were not done in the performance of his official duty."

The Kealoha’s lawyer, Kevin Sumida, argued that the actions are covered by the law.

But Sumida is not their taxpayer-appointed attorney in the federal mailbox case. Instead, Rustam Barbee is the one assigned to defend Louis Kealoha, while Cynthia Kagiwada is the court-appointed attorney for Katherine Kealoha.

Given all that, it’s not clear if the county will have to pay back the federal government for legal fees.

The Honolulu Police Commission does have a meeting Wednesday afternoon, but it’s unclear if they’ll take up the matter.

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