City Councilman pushes back against plan to pay ex-police chief’s legal fees

Louis Kealoha leaves federal court
Louis Kealoha leaves federal court
Updated: Mar. 23, 2019 at 1:14 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu City Councilman Ron Menor is flexing his political muscle, saying city taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay ex-police chief Louis Kealoha’s legal fees as he fights almost two dozen federal criminal charges.

This comes two days after the Honolulu Police Commission voted to pick up the tab.

Menor, who heads up the Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee, wants the police commission to reconsider their decision. And if not, he’s working to determine if the city council can outright reject it.

“I think they made the wrong decision,” he said, “The federal charges against Kealoha, are that he engaged in criminal conduct. I don’t believe that his conduct relates to his performance of official duties or responsibilities.”

(Image: Hawaii News Now/file)
(Image: Hawaii News Now/file)

Kealoha and his wife, former deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, go to trial in May on federal charges — including obstruction of justice — for a mailbox theft the feds say, was staged to frame a man for a crime he didn’t commit.

Both have court-appointed attorneys because they claimed they couldn’t afford to pay for their own.

[Read more: When it comes to the ex-police chief’s legal defense, things just got more complicated]

Kevin Sumida, an attorney who represented both of them in past civil cases, was the one who convinced the police commission that city dollars are needed.

That’s in addition to the Kealohas’ legal team which the federal government is already paying for.

Kevin Sumida, the civil attorney for the Kealohas leaves federal court
Kevin Sumida, the civil attorney for the Kealohas leaves federal court

Ken Lawson, of the University of Hawaii Law School, called the move another stall tactic, and believes Sumida is just trying to get back pay for defending the Kealohas in the past.

The Kealohas’ defaulted on their $1M mortgage for their Hawaii Kai home after they were indicted in 2017 and the lender foreclosed. The government moved in to seize the remaining funds which came out to several hundred thousand dollars.

Lawson believes Sumida was anticipating that money would be used to pay him for past legal services but when the government made their claim, there wasn’t enough leftover.

“He’s trying to get paid,” Lawson said, “He couldn’t get paid for the civil suit so (Sumida’s) trying to do it off taxpayers’ backs.”

The federal judge overseeing the upcoming trial called the involved parties to court Friday to explain the request for city money while federal money was already being used.

Chief Judge John Michael Seabright asked Kealoha, under oath, if this was a part of a plan to get rid of his court appointed attorney, Rustam Barbee, and theoretically delay trial.

Kealoha said it was not part of a plan to get rid of Barbee and that he was satisfied with the work Barbee had done in the past year.

Judge Seabright got visibly upset when Sumida then made another bizarre request — to give Kealoha a second attorney. Judge Seabright quickly shut him down.

Lawson laughed when he learned about that request. “We already paying for a lawyer for you. You’re not getting two, you don’t need two,”

Menor is not just asking the Honolulu Police Commission to reconsider the decision to use city funds to pay for Louis Kealoha’s defense, he also asked the city attorneys to investigate recourse.

Menor wants to know if the City Council can outright overrule the police commission.

It’s unprecedented territory so he hopes to have answers in the next few weeks.

Menor says the corporation counsel’s budget to pay outside attorneys for legal defense has run out for the fiscal year, which ends in June, so there is no money available to pay if the police commission’s decision stands.

Another complication: The city’s procedure to pay outside attorneys is clear: It requires the attorney to be on an approved list. The city then picks an attorney from that list in what’s described as a procurement process.

But Judge Seabright insisted in court Friday that the federal system does not work that way and that the city’s procurement process would not come into play, indicating he wants Barbee to remain whether he’s approved by the city or not.

The city attorney at the federal proceeding, Traci Morita, mentioned adding Barbee to the list, but didn’t provide a timeline.

Seabright did bring up another option: Reimbursement.

If the city decides it must pay for Kealoha’s attorney, it could reimburse the federal government for Barbee’s fees after the trial.

Menor shrugged his shoulders on if that was an option, saying that more research is still needed.

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