HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro has received a Justice Department target letter informing him that he’s under investigation in the federal public corruption probe that has already led to two indictments against his former top deputy, Katherine Kealoha.
Former U.S. Attorney and Honolulu prosecutor Loretta Sheehan says the development is sure to rattle the law enforcement community.
“Target letter means the grand jury has substantial evidence that you’ve engaged in criminal activity. You are going to be indicted," Sheehan said. “A subject letter you have the opportunity to possibly not be indicted to possibly cooperate or to plead to a much lesser charge. Or if you’re completely innocent, to clear up any misunderstanding.”
First Deputy Chasid Sapolu also received a Justice Department subject — but not target — letter.
Special federal prosecutor Michael Wheat is leading the public corruption probe.
His office sent target letters to ex-Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and other police officers in 2016, and all were immediately put on administrative leave. Months later, indictments came down on all of them.
Kaneshiro’s office appears to be connected to those cases, which are set to go to trial next year.
Kaneshiro is accused of lying to protect Louis Kealoha’s wife, Katherine, a former deputy city prosecutor.
Despite the new developments, Kaneshiro does not show signs of stepping down. And Mayor Kirk Caldwell told Hawaii News Now that the prosecuting attorney is elected and therefore he will not intervene.
Meanwhile, the state Attorney General’s Office said on the issue that “when compelling circumstances exist, the attorney general may supersede the county prosecutor.”
The office also said it is in contact with the city Prosecutor’s Office.
Kaneshiro could be removed by voters in a recall or by the courts in an impeachment case, which would require a petition from voters.
“We’ll see how it all plays out and really, at the end of the day, it does rest with the courts; and in almost every case, there could be a recall and it’s not gonna come from the executive branch of the city government,” Caldwell said.
“It’s gonna come from the judicial branch or the people themselves.”
Other experts say that if Kaneshiro is indicted, a judge could require he take leave from office as a condition of his pretrial release.
But Sheehan said members of law enforcement must live up to a high standard.
“When a law enforcement officer gets a target letter, of course of course he should step down of course," she said. "There’s a cloud over your performance at this point in time, step down.”
The federal probe into Kaneshiro apparently began when investigators learned that Katherine Kealoha allegedly convinced a judge to dismiss a speeding ticket against an electrician who was working for her.
Kaneshiro and Sapolu were called before a federal grand jury repeatedly on suspicion that they tried to cover up for Kealoha.