Kealoha scandal fuels push to seize pension benefits from criminals

Updated: Feb. 25, 2021 at 5:10 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Government workers who commit felony crimes could lose more than their freedom if a measure currently moving through the state Legislature passes.

The proposal allows for half of the individual’s pension benefits to be taken away upon conviction.

The Kealoha scandal is fueling momentum for the bill.

Disgraced ex-Police Chief Louis Kealoha collects $9,700 a month from his pension.

He is preparing to serve a seven-year sentence in federal prison for obstruction, conspiracy and bank fraud ― all crimes committed while he was heading up the Honolulu Police Department.

“The Kealoha case really, I think, illustrated the need for having a discussion about this,” said state Sen. Chris Lee, of the House Judiciary Committee.

”The public has been very clear, that there ought to be some penalty, especially in cases like this, where somebody in a position of trust, clearly went out of their way to break that trust.”

State Sen. Karl Rhoads, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, agreed. “People see it as being unfair that you take advantage of your government position and then still get a pension,” he said.

Hawaii is one of only a dozen states that does not allow the forfeiture of pension benefits for government workers convicted of a felony.

Similar bills in previous sessions failed. Some versions called for forfeiture of all retirement benefits and that brought opposition.

Lee said even the state Attorney General had concerns about full forfeiture.

“What is constitutionally and legally permissible because some of those benefits some had paid into those funds themselves,” Lee said.

The measure is not retroactive so Kealoha will still be able to collect his pension, even while in prison.

But lawmakers say Kealoha isn’t the first and won’t be the last government worker who commits a felony so this change in the law is needed.

The Senate bill passed all committees so far without opposition. The companion bill in the House is also moving forward.

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