Police commissioners blast city legal team for ‘breathtakingly’ bad advice

Chief Ballard met with commissioners Wednesday.
Chief Ballard met with commissioners Wednesday.
Updated: Jan. 23, 2019 at 6:00 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The chair and vice chair of the Honolulu Police Commission — both of them experienced attorneys — complained Wednesday about poor legal advice the body received from the city’s office of Corporation Counsel when it was led by Donna Leong.

Leong is on paid leave after receiving a letter from the Justice Department that said she is a target of the ongoing investigation into corruption at the highest level of Honolulu law enforcement.

The Office of the Corporation Counsel provides legal advice at all levels of the city government, including to boards and commissions, the City Council, the mayor and city departments.

Leong negotiated the buy-out of former Chief Louis Kealoha, which included a $250,000 payment approved by the Police Commission at the advice of Leong and the urging of then-Chairman Max Sword.

The target letter Leong received informed her she is being investigated in connection with that payment.

But the criticism from commissioners at Wednesday afternoon’s meeting seemed far broader than just that decision.

It came up after the commission unanimously re-elected attorney Loretta Sheehan to another term as chair.

Prior to her appointment and even on the commission the former federal prosecutor has been willing to question the department and the city about how it handles law enforcement issues.

After Sheehan was re-elected, she supported the re-election of Vice Chairman Steven Levinson, who is a retired justice of the state Supreme Court.

In a surprise move, Commissioner Shannon Alivado, government relations director of the General Contractors Association of Hawaii, said she would also be interested in the seat.

She complimented Levinson, but also pointed out that her experience in the community would be a good balance given that that three of the seven commissioners are attorneys.

Sheehan argued in favor of keeping Levinson as vice chair, saying he had been invaluable assisting her in research and analysis of the laws and rules that govern the police department.

She also said he helped her through difficult legal issues and resisted what she called poor advice from the city lawyers.

That drew a response from another former corporation counsel who was appointed to the commission recently, Carrie Okinaga, now general counsel for the University of Hawaii.

Okinaga said the commissioners should not discount the advice from city lawyers, who have the legal duty and authority to represent them.

At that, Levinson argued that it was unwise for a client to blindly accept the advice of any attorney, especially when the advice is questionable.

Levinson said: “I am in agreement with the chair, that over the course of the last two years we have been on the receiving end of some, some, breathtakingly bad advice. And if we had blindly followed it we could be in a lot of trouble."

Despite the argument, the commission voted 4-to03 to replace Levinson with Alivado as vice chair, apparently agreeing that a non-attorney with a variety of community contacts would help balance the leadership.

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