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Parade of former, current council members subpoenaed to testify in federal probe

Updated: Jan. 22, 2021 at 5:32 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - More officials currently or previously tied to Honolulu Hale are being called to testify in connection with a federal probe stemming from the Kealoha scandal.

Former City Council members Ernie Martin and Trevor Ozawa arrived for federal grand jury proceedings Thursday along with current City Councilman Brandon Elefante.

Both Elefante and Martin declined to comment about their appearance. Hawaii News Now sent an email to Ozawa but did not hear back.

Last month, former Councilman Ikaika Anderson also testified. He said he was asked about the $250,000 payoff for disgraced ex-Police Chief Louis Kealoha in 2017.

[Read more: Experts: City unlikely to recoup Louis Kealoha’s $250,000 payout]

The money was approved by the Honolulu Police Commission, but not the City Council.

Alexander Silvert, who retired from the federal Public Defender’s office last year, shed light on why the council members could be getting summoned to testify before the federal grand jury.

“If someone is saying, we didn’t need council approval then you go to the council and say, ‘OK in your opinion did they need council approval?’” Silvert said.

Silvert said the special prosecutor, assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat, is being thorough by bringing in many officials.

The $250,000 payoff to get Kealoha to retire was seen by many as a settlement to avoid a lawsuit. A settlement of more than $5,000 must be approved by the City Council.

But supporters of the deal that the police commission worked out called it a severance instead. A severance does not require council approval.

The money was controversial because Kealoha had already been served a target letter by the US Department of Justice. Kealoha has since been convicted and sentenced to seven years in federal prison for obstruction, conspiracy and bank fraud.

“Those of us that know how serious a target letter is know that there’s something really suspicious about a city settling with the chief ― $250,000 ― after that person’s received a target letter,” said Ken Lawson, of the University of Hawaii School of Law.

Donna Leong was the city’s top civil attorney when the deal was done. She retired last year while on paid administrative leave after she received a target letter.

Roy Amemiya, who was the second in command as the managing director under former Mayor Kirk Caldwell, received a less serious subject letter from the DOJ.

Amemiya was also called to the grand jury as was his deputy, Georgette Deemer.

Manny Valbuena, who was the director of Budget and Fiscal Services under the previous administration, was also called twice along with his chief accountant, Nancy Abilay.

Silvert said Wheat would not spend this much time and call so many witnesses if he did not believe a crime was committed.

“He clearly believes by bringing in these high level people that something is there,” SIlvert said. “I would take this as a sign that something’s going to come out soon from the grand jury.”

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