Calls for police chief to step aside grow amid expanding federal probe

Calls for police chief to step aside grow amid expanding federal probe
Published: Mar. 10, 2016 at 10:48 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 10, 2016 at 11:14 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A state senator and a defense attorney called for Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha to temporarily step aside because of a growing federal criminal investigation targeting him and his wife, while other officials were silent about what should happen.

On Wednesday, Hawaii News Now reported that a federal probe of Kealoha has broadened with the arrival of a second prosecutor. The chief's wife, Katherine, who's the head of the city prosecutor's career criminal division, is the focus of the criminal case, according to sources familiar with the probe.

It's a case so sensitive that some top public officials either declined to comment or said very little about it Thursday.

For months, a federal grand jury has been hearing evidence in the case, in which sources said Kealoha and his wife are accused of public corruption and civil right violations. They have both denied wrongdoing.

Asked for reaction to a widening investigation, the City Council's budget chair said very little.

"It's a serious matter and I really don't want to comment on it.  As I say, I think you should talk to the mayor," said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi.

In a statement, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said, "We are taking Hawaii News Now's report seriously but we have not received any notification about this matter from the federal government. If there is any finding of wrongdoing, I have confidence that the Police Commission will take immediate and appropriate action."

Council Chair Ernie Martin declined comment, as did city prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, Katherine Kealoha's boss, who said he couldn't talk about an ongoing investigation.

Both Kealohas remain on the job at full pay.

State Sen. Will Espero, who's been critical of police leadership, said he agrees with some retired and current police officers who've told him Kealoha should be placed on paid leave during the investigation.

"Many of them tell me that if they were involved in any type of investigation like this, that they would certainly be ROPA'd or put on temporary leave and they feel that there has been a double standard because it is the chief under investigation," Espero said. "Everyone is saying 'When will this end?  How far will it go?'"

ROPA stands for removal of police authority, which usually involves temporarily taking away an officer's badge, gun and power to arrest people when they are under investigation for wrongdoing. ROPA'd officers often continue working with pay and are re-assigned to a desk job until the investigation targeting them concludes.

Ron Taketa, who chairs the Honolulu Police Commission, told Hawaii News Now "we don't have any additional information today" compared to last October, when HNN first broke news of the pending federal grand jury probe on the chief and his wife.

Taketa said the commission would not attempt to put Louis Kealoha on paid leave during the probe because "we really have no basis to do anything. The commission really cannot act on rumors."

Taketa confirmed that Honolulu police officers have testified before the grand jury and that the secret panel has subpoenaed documents from the police department, but he doesn't know the specific nature of the documents or the officers' testimony.

Defense attorney Victor Bakke, who worked with Katherine Kealoha for years when he was a deputy city prosecutor, said they're entitled to their day in court "but right now, everything just points to them showing that they've received favorable treatment at every point, that they've abused their power of trust in the community."

Bakke said both Kealohas should temporarily re-assign themselves to other jobs in their departments during the investigation to avoid any appearance of conflict.

"It would make sense that they step back on their own, for the sake of the credibility of their positions," Bakke said.

Espero, who this year has pushed for several new state laws aimed at tougher scrutiny of police departments statewide, said, "This is not a good reflection for the city and county of Honolulu, for all of the professional law abiding officers, and I think we just want this situation to get done and over with as soon as possible."

The federal investigation of Kealoha and his wife began after a federal public defender turned over evidence to the FBI because he believed his client's civil rights were violated when the Kealohas fabricated a criminal case against him late last year.

In addition to the federal probe, numerous Honolulu police officers have been interviewed in a separate 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, unsuccessfully 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.

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