EXCLUSIVE: City Ethics Commission investigating HPD chief

Published: May. 8, 2015 at 1:36 AM HST|Updated: May. 8, 2015 at 2:00 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Honolulu Ethics Commission is investigating Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha to determine if he abused his power in a police investigation of his wife's uncle who was later charged with stealing a mailbox from the Kealoha home, sources told Hawaii News Now.

At issue: whether Kealoha overstepped his authority because specialized police units were used for surveillance and the arrest in what was a relatively minor crime at his own house.

"I've never looked for special privileges," said Kealoha in an interview with Hawaii News Now last fall about how police handled an investigation of the 2013 theft of a mailbox from the Kahala home where he and his family used to live.

In recent months, sources said officers from the elite Waikiki Crime Reduction Unit and Criminal Intelligence Unit have spent time at the Ethics Commission, where they were questioned in an ethics probe into whether the chief abused his authority in the case.

Sources said the amount of HPD resources used in the case raised ethical questions.

For instance, in an unusual move, HPD assigned a homicide detective to handle the mailbox theft investigation.

Police CRU and CIU units performed surveillance for several days on Kealoha's wife's uncle, Gerard Puana, who the Kealohas accused of stealing their mailbox, sources said.

But sources said the police report in the mailbox case left out key information in what some consider a cover up.

The HPD report claimed CRU officers were used only in Puana's arrest, not for days of surveillance and the report completely left out CIU's involvement.

Kealoha declined comment Thursday, but told Hawaii News Now last fall: "I know what it looks like and there's no preferential treatment. I wasn't behind the investigation directing the staff and officers."

Kealoha has yet not been questioned by ethics investigators, sources said.

In an interesting twist, the two HPD sergeants in the Waikiki Crime Reduction Unit who worked on the chief's stolen mailbox case later won recognition as HPD's sergeants of the year in 2014.

Chuck Totto, the executive director of the Ethics Commission, declined to comment.

The Ethics Commission has the power to fine city officials if it finds wrongdoing but can also pass its findings on to prosecutors if it determines any crimes have been committed.

In an indication of how serious the situation is, sources said one officer involved in the investigation has been out on leave for months, which coworkers attribute to his being "stressed out" about the ethics investigation.

Some officers have asked for lawyers from the city Corporation Counsel's office to represent them during their interviews with the Ethics Commission, sources said.

The Ethics Commission's lead investigator in the case is a well-known retired police captain who used to run the Crimestoppers program. Letha DeCaires left HPD after a 27-year career when she was not promoted by Kealoha's administration.

While some officers friendly to Kealoha are asking whether DeCaires is going after the chief as a "pay back," others said she's a by-the-book investigator who is tough but fair.

DeCaires' LinkedIn profile said she has investigated thousands of cases and worked on the prosecution of hundreds of property and violent crime cases. DeCaires held a number of key positions at HPD over the years, overseeing all property crimes investigations, serving as legislative liaison and serving as watch commander at HPD dispatch.

Meanwhile, the FBI is also looking into both Kealoha and HPD's handling of the case.

Alexander Silvert, the first assistant deputy federal public defender who represented Puana, Kealoha's wife's uncle, in the federal mailbox theft case, told Hawaii News Now last September: "I'm interested in presenting evidence (to the FBI) that I believe amounts to either civil rights violations or obstruction of justice type of charges."

Puana was charged with stealing the Kealoha's mailbox – a federal crime.

But a federal judge dismissed the case after Kealoha gave inappropriate testimony about Puana's criminal past.

While on the witness stand, Kealoha, the star witness in the case, insisted surveillance video of the mailbox theft showed Puana stealing it, while Silvert said the image on the video did not match Puana's physical stature.

At the time, Puana was involved in a messy civil lawsuit in which he claimed Kealoha's wife Katherine stole more than $200,000 from him and Katherine's 95-year-old grandmother. A jury in that civil case – in state court – sided with Katherine Kealoha, awarding her $658,000 in damages.

Chief Kealoha said he believed Puana stole the mailbox to obtain documents in the civil dispute.

When the chief was asked by the federal prosecutor in the theft case if he could compare the defendant appeared on the video compared to the present, Kealoha said, "He's picked up a lot of weight since that time. And ... How he looks in this video is how he looked when he was charged and convicted for breaking into his neighbor's house."

That statement caused a mistrial, and a federal judge threw out the theft case against Puana with prejudice, meaning he could not be charged again in the future.

Silvert, Puana's attorney, claimed his client was framed and the police department's investigation was filled with improprieties. Silvert claimed HPD falsified records and made evidence disappear.

During the trial, Silvert asked key questions of Niall Silva, the HPD officer who recovered the black and white surveillance video of the mailbox theft from the chief's house. Silvert said he wanted to know why Silva went to the Kahala home to review the video hours before Katherine Kealoha reported to 911 that the mailbox theft happened. Silva is now retired from HPD.

In February, the Honolulu Police Commission said Louis Kealoha "exceeds expectations" in running his department, the third year in a row it has given him that high an evaluation.

In February of 2014, the commission unanimously reappointed the chief to a second five-year term, almost nine months before his first term expired.

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