Criminal case finished, the next victims of the Kealoha scandal could be taxpayers

Updated: Dec. 2, 2020 at 10:30 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Now that the criminal case against the Kealohas has been finished, the next victims of the former power couple could be Honolulu city taxpayers ― by way of civil lawsuits.

Gerard Puana, a central figure to the case who wrongly spent 10 weeks in law enforcement custody on charges that had been trumped up by his niece, former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, is not only suing the Kealohas and the Honolulu police officers who helped frame him.

He’s also going after the city.

“There’s no question to me that the city is liable for a lot of that. We’re not going to get restitution from the Kealohas, they don’t have anything left,” said Puana’s attorney, Eric Seitz.

“The city is on the hook.”

Kealoha and her husband, former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, were both high-ranking city employees.

Seitz says attorneys he has consulted both in Hawaii and on the mainland, many of whom have handled large civil rights violation cases, have told him the city’s liability could be in the tens of millions of dollars.

So far, Seitz says, the city has shown no interest in settling the case.

“They’ve been obstructive, they’ve denied liability, and that’s eventually going to come back to haunt them in an enormous way,” Seitz said.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell declined on Tuesday to talk about the specifics of the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation. But he did comment on the sentencing of the Kealohas themselves.

“This is an end to a very difficult chapter for the City and County of Honolulu. I’m grateful to all those who brought this case,” Caldwell said. “I respect the decision of Judge Seabright, and I support his sentencing.”

U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright may have given Puana’s civil lawsuit a major lift during Katherine Kealoha’s sentencing hearing on Monday, when he stated, beyond reasonable doubt:

“There’s no question in my mind that all the defendants conspired to deprive Gerard (Puana) of his civil rights,” Seabright said.

Such a finding could carry a lot of weight in a civil trial because the burden of proof in a civil case ― the preponderance of evidence ― is much less than in a criminal case, which requires proof beyond reasonable doubt.

“How can you, the City and County of Honolulu, deny the existence of a conspiracy when a federal judge who has sat through weeks of evidence has said, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they conspired,” asked Ken Lawson, of the University of Hawaii Law School.

“Settle the case and don’t waste any more taxpayer money. Because to go forward, where there’s no good faith basis to do it, will again continue to cost us,” Lawson added.

The civil trial has been delayed because of the criminal case, but that stay could be lifted as early as next week.

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