HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State Senate Vice President Will Espero said HPD Chief Louis Kealoha should step aside from his leadership role until the FBI completes its criminal investigation over allegations that he abused his power.
The chief's wife – a top deputy city prosecutor -- is also under federal investigation. But her boss told Hawaii News now she will not be put on leave.
Police officers are routinely placed on paid leave -- reassigned to desk jobs with their badges and guns temporarily removed -- if they're accused of ethical or criminal wrongdoing.
But that hasn't happened to the police chief in spite of a city ethics investigation targeting him and his wife that's more than six months old. The couple is also under scrutiny in a widening federal criminal investigation, sources said.
Kealoha and his wife Katherine are the targets of the federal civil rights probe. The case began after a federal defense attorney accused them of framing her uncle in the theft of a mailbox from their home, and accused police officers of falsifying records and making evidence disappear.
"We have to look at what's in the best interests of the department and what's in the best interest of the city and county Honolulu," said State Senator Will Espero, the vice chair of the Senate public safety committee.
Espero said the city Police Commission should temporarily remove Kealoha from his job with pay while the FBI criminal probe is underway.
"We want to make certain that our top employee, the police chief, is above board with no controversy and no questions and at this time, that sadly is not the case," Espero said.
Ron Taketa, chairman of the Honolulu Police Commission, told Hawaii News Now Tuesday morning that the commission plans to discuss the chief's status behind closed doors at its next regular meeting on October 21.
"We haven't had a chance to discuss this situation so I can't comment," Taketa said.
While the commission has the power to hire and fire the police chief, Taketa said this situation is "unprecedented," and it is "unclear" if the commission can place the chief on leave during an investigation.
Taketa said the commission would discuss its authority and options with a city attorney in executive session at its meeting next Wednesday.
He is unsure if the commission will make a final determination about Kealoha's status during that meeting. The commission may simply decide to gather more information and meet further on the issue, Taketa said.
Katherine Kealoha oversees about eight attorneys as head of the city prosecutor's career criminal unit. Her job is to review cases and decide which ones to prosecute, targeting repeat offenders such as convicted criminals out on parole.
"Whatever is going on is, does not impact her performance or her responsibilities in this office," said city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, who said Kealoha remains on the job. Kaneshiro said he will not put her on paid leave just because she's the target of a criminal probe, "because anyone can be a target."
"If someone is charged with a crime, now that's a different story," Kaneshiro told Hawaii News Now. "She's not charged with a crime, there is, you could say it's a preliminary investigation, preliminary probe. That's no reason to relieve someone of their responsibilities and duties in this office."
But sources said the federal criminal case has progressed far beyond the preliminary stage, with a special prosecutor brought in from California to oversee the case, subpoenas going out and a federal investigative grand jury that is expected to start hearing the case in November.
Numerous police officers have been interviewed in a city Ethics Commission investigation that began looking into whether the police chief abused his power in his department's response to the relatively minor mailbox theft. In an unusual use of resources, a homicide detective investigated and specialized police units – the Criminal Intelligence Unit that reports only to the chief and the Waikiki Crime Reduction Unit – conducted surveillance and made an arrest in the theft of the mailbox from the Kealohas' former home in Kahala. But the ethics case grew in scope as it uncovered other potential wrongdoing, sources said.
In September, the Kealohas sued the Ethics Commission, asking a judge to stop the ethics probe and force the commission to provide the original ethics complaint against them as well as the investigative file in the case. They filed the Circuit Court lawsuit as Doe and Roe to protect their "privacy interest," but sources identified the Kealohas as the plaintiffs.
Louis Kealoha has repeatedly denied overstepping his authority.
Last fall, a federal judge dismissed the mailbox theft case against Katherine Kealoha's uncle and Alexander Silvert, the federal public defender in the case, presented the FBI with documents and evidence he said "amounts to either civil rights violations or obstruction of justice type of charges."