HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The city Prosecutor’s Office has kicked two high-profile cases to another agency, citing potential conflicts due to a widening federal investigation.
Both cases were handled by former deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, the one-time head of the career criminal unit ― who is now facing dozens of federal charges.
And the defendants in both cases are witnesses against her.
The cases were transferred to the state Attorney General’s office last week, but lawyers say they’ve been in limbo for years ― raising questions about whether it was improper for the Prosecutor’s Office to hold on to them for so long.
The first case dates back to August 2015. Defendant Tiffany Masunaga was arrested in a drug raid and large amounts of opioids were recovered.
Federal authorities say the opioids came from Dr. Rudy Puana, Kealoha’s younger brother.
And earlier this month, Kealoha and Puana were indicted on a total of 54 counts of drug-related crimes.
Investigators say Kealoha assigned the Masunaga case to her own career criminal unit in an effort to control the case and protect her brother’s alleged drug distribution ring.
Masunaga’s attorney, William Harrison, had asked that the case be handed off years ago for this same reason.
“There have not only been violations with her due process but there’s professional conduct violations," he said.
Harrison believes the prosecutor’s office only now agreed to transfer the case because federal authorities publicly disclosed the alleged details of Kealoha’s involvement and because of ongoing media reports.
The second case handed off to the state Attorney General’s Office is a convoluted DUI investigation from November 2016. In that incident, Police Sgt. Albert Lee’s subsidized vehicle crashed into an empty HECO building in Hawaii Kai.
That crash happened on the same day that Lee was called to testify before the federal grand jury investigating Kealoha.
The case was also assigned to Kealoha’s career criminal division ― an unusual move.
Lee’s attorney, Megan Kau, says Kealoha’s direct involvement in the DUI was the first red flag.
“These are deputies that handle defendants who have multiple felony convictions, are facing mandatory minimum life sentences or mandatory minimum sentences in Halawa," she said.
"Albert Lee’s case is not that ― so it’s very suspicious that this case got assigned to that division, especially when Katherine Kealoha was the chief of that division.”
The reason Lee became a witness against Kealoha in the first place was because of an arrest of a Honolulu businessman ― who also happens to be a convicted felon and a friend of Kealoha’s.
The businessman was wanted for a traffic warrant. And an officer who worked under Lee ― Jared Spiker ― went to arrest the businessman but missed him.
Spiker then got a call from the businessman.
In that phone call, which Spiker record, the businessman can be heard saying: “Listen, I going go to the top of the food chain. Trust me. Jared Spiker.”
The “top of the food chain” may have referred to Kealoha, who then called Spiker and ordered him to leave the businessman alone.
Lee defied that order and the businessman was arrested and subsequently pleaded “no contest” to the traffic crime.
Months later, Lee was charged with DUI in connection with the Hawaii Kai case.
Kau, his attorney, says given how the case was handled, it’s obvious her client is a victim of retaliation.
For what was a simple petty misdemeanor, the career criminal unit conducted DNA testing on Lee’s vehicle and sent it to the mainland. A traffic expert from the mainland was even flown in.
Kau says she has never seen the Prosecutor’s Office go to such lengths for a DUI case, especially since at that time, there was a backlog of sex assault cases ― hundreds of kits waiting for DNA testing.
“He was targeted and he was treated unfairly,” Kau said.
Kau and Harrison plan to meet with the state Attorney General’s office and file court motions to have both cases dismissed, saying the conflicts have tainted the evidence and cannot be overcome.