By Stephanie Downing
The mission of the U.S. Justice Department is to maintain the “fair and impartial administration of justice” for all American citizens (DOJ.gov, 2018). However, the public’s confidence in the very agencies authorized to protect their interests has dwindled in light of nation-wide occurrences of misconduct across the criminal justice system. In 2017, the State of Hawaii was plagued by the arrest of Chief Louis Kealoha of the Honolulu Police Department, his wife – an eminent state prosecutor – and five other police officers for their involvement in a massive public corruption scheme. This paper exposes the ethical and illicit violations committed by then Chief Kealoha, his wife, and officers under his jurisdiction at the expense of those they were entitled to serve – making this most heinous act of public injustice in modern Hawaiian history (Kawano, 2017).
As notable figures serving at the top-levels of the State Judiciary, Louis and Katherine Kealoha attained noteworthy prestige and influence throughout the Hawaiian Islands. As the Chief of the Honolulu Police Department (HPD), Louis Kealoha presided over the largest law enforcement body in the state, while his wife was respected as a top-tier prosecutor in Honolulu (Kaneya, 2017 & honolulupd.org, 2018).
Beyond their professional endeavors, the Kealohas enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle and fought relentlessly to maintain this elite status. In 2012, the Kealohas’ empire was threatened when Katherine became the subject of a lawsuit filed by her uncle after she allegedly withdrew thousands of dollars from a joint account without mutual consent (Kawano, 2017). In an attempt to evade criminal charges and invalidate his testimony, Louis and Katherine Kealoha used their leverage to frame her uncle into committing a felony offense (Kawano, 2017). Consequently, the inconsistencies in Katherine’s testimony and the lack of evidence to connect her uncle to the crime orchestrated by the Kealohas instantly prompted a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Following a two-year investigation, the FBI indicted the Kealohas and five other HPD police officers in 2017 on 20 counts of embezzlement, abuse of power, criminal conspiracy, and the obstruction of justice (Grube & Kaneya, 2017).
What initially began as an investigation into an alleged mailbox theft ultimately led to a two-year federal probe against two of the most influential figures in the state. In 2007, Katherine Kealoha allegedly received a financial trust from her uncle, Gerard Puana, to which she claims she received complete access to his finances as the delegated power of attorney (Kawano, 2017). However, the FBI’s investigation revealed that Katherine not only forged her uncle’s signature on the trust fund, but also made up an alias named of Alison Wong to notarize the form (Kawano, 2017). For years, Katherine was able to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars from the trust for her own personal gain. The forged signature and the identity of Allison Wong were never verified in court until the FBI issued a formal investigation in 2015. This raises investigative concerns about whether the presiding court overlooked Katherine’s offense or simply refrained from following a standard protocol to preserve the integrity of legal documents and hold anyone accountable for breaking the law.
After her uncle filed a civil lawsuit against her, Katherine filed a police report after claiming that her mailbox was stolen overnight (Kawano, 2017). Katherine told the responding officer that her outdoor security camera may reveal the identity of the perpetrator, however she asserted that she wanted to have a family member review the footage before she submitted it to police. The responding officer noted this claim in his report but failed to further question Katherine about why she wanted to delay the investigation by keeping the video footage. Katherine did not submit the camera to HPD until three days after calling 911 about the theft (Kawano, 2017).
As a tenured prosecutor, Katherine is evidently aware that withholding evidence about a crime could jeopardize the integrity of an ongoing investigation. In addition, the responding officer’s vague questioning failed to uncover sufficient evidence about the crime. When HPD finally received the recording of Katherine’s security camera from that night, Louis was ironically able to point-blanketly identify the offender as Gerard Puana, despite the video’s visibly poor quality. In court, Chief Kealoha reaffirmed his confidence based on the following reasoning: “I’ve known Gerard for over 30 years. I know how he walks, the kind of clothes that he wore” (Kawano, 2017).
Puana was never questioned about an alibi and officers were unable to collect any physical or circumstantial evidence to directly tie Puana to the theft.
Essentially, Puana’s charges were solely based on Chief Kealoha’s “ability” to identify his attire and walking patterns – an unconvincing reason to justify any probable cause for Puana’s arrest.
Before Puana was formally charged, he suspected that he was under surveillance by undercover HPD officers after Katherine filed the initial police report (Kawano, 2017). Puana noted the dates, timings, and license plate numbers of cars that would frequent the neighborhood over several days (Kawano, 2016). The subsequent FBI investigation revealed that these vehicles belonged to the HPD’s Criminal Intelligence Unit (CIU) – a clandestine squad that is not legally authorized to investigate petty thefts with the exception of excruciating circumstances (Kawano, 2016). The FBI’s probe eventually discovered that several officers from CIU maintained personal ties with the Kealohas – raising the possibility that the Kealohas may have received preferential treatment based on their long-standing associations in HPD. Rather than comply with standard investigative procedures, it appears that the Kealohas orchestrated the direction of the investigation and used their connections and administrative standing to their advantage. As Chief of HPD, it is likely that Louis Kealoha easily changed the trajectory of this investigation to work in his wife’s favor – showcasing a blatant obstruction of justice at the highest level of leadership.
The inconsistencies and lack of candor in the HPD’s investigation into the theft of the Kealohas’ mailbox raises additional concerns on the standard of conduct employed in prior investigations. It is clear that quality assurance protocols were vastly abstained from at the moment that the responding officer arrived to the Kealohas’ residence. The sole reliance on a single testimony – not from an eye-witness, but from someone with no factual basis to support his reasoning, portrays an apparent miscarriage of justice that clearly swung in the favor of a single party. To date, it is unclear whether ongoing or prior investigations were also subject to such conduct – however it is critical that HPD launches an internal investigation by an independent agency to hold those accountable for wrongdoing and preserve the overarching reputation of the department.
In any organization, leaders are awarded with considerable prestige and power to govern a workforce and set a reputable standard within the agency. In the U.S. criminal justice system, leaders are expected to apply the law impartially and prosecute those who endanger the welfare of a community.
The Kealoha investigation has intensified the public’s mistrust in the criminal justice system and falls directly within the plethora of recent misconduct violations among police officers. Occurrences of racial profiling, police brutality, and the unlawful deployment of deadly force has degraded the public’s ability place their faith in a system that prides upon its power to protect the best interests and safety of the American people.
The most scathing ethical violation committed by the Kealohas is that as elected leaders of the community, the Chief of Police and deputy prosecutor were selfishly motivated to capitalize on the population that entrusted them with the highest regard. For over twenty years, Louis and Katherine Kealoha pursued a profession that provided them with both the means and platform to mask their hidden agenda and profit from public resources. In addition, the Kealohas’ administrative standing within the HPD and the state judiciary granted them with considerable influence to manipulate those under their jurisdiction to work in their favor – raising more ethical concerns about the underlying intent of some HPD personnel. It also begs the question about whether unconceived biases by the HPD and the greater state judiciary may impact the integrity of future investigations and hearings.
Furthermore, the crimes committed by the Kealohas while holding a high-ranking position will cast a negative reflection on the Native Hawaiian minority – who have fought incredulously for their rightful seat at the table after their Kingdom was illegally annexed. Ethnic inequality has plagued both public and private institutions throughout the United States. In 2017, U.S. News reported that the overwhelming majority of elected officials in America are white males, despite only making up 31% of the total U.S. population (Lardieri, 2017).
The election of Louis Kealoha as Chief of HPD marked a colossal breakthrough within the Native Hawaiian community. Since the Kingdom of Hawaii was annexed by the U.S. government, Native Hawaiians have largely remained absent from being appointed to public office (Herreria, 2018). As a minority within their own land, the concerns of Native Hawaiians are frequently overshadowed by priorities that often stem beyond their interests. Chief Kealoha’s promise to instill Hawaiian values in his leadership as the premier law enforcement officer in the state was a promising claim to reaffirm the priorities of a demographic that has remained absent from recognition for nearly half a century (Sunderland, 2010).
As a result, the Kealoha investigation has become a significant setback for Native Hawaiians and their striving to reclaim their rightful seat in public office. While the Kealohas’ ethnic background has no bearing on their actions, their investigation will add to the extensive history of discrimination against Native Hawaiians (Herreria, 2018). In many cases, Native Hawaiians are often blamed for personal grievances beyond their control, such as homelessness and economic disparity (Herreria, 2018). As a result, this scandal may heighten underlying prejudices against Native Hawaiians and may make it more challenging for them to apply to future positions.
Ethical leadership and candor in the criminal justice system is fundamentally critical, as the public serves as the first line of defense for any law enforcement body. The ability to protect a community is highly dependent on the public’s cooperation and relationship with those enforcing the law. A community that lacks confidence with their presiding law enforcement agency will ultimately feel less compelled to report criminal activity, assist officers in future investigation as key witnesses, or fail to cooperate with law enforcement during an altercation. Ultimately, this prevents officers from preserving the safety of their communities and deepens the divide among key individuals who can help deter future criminal behavior.
As a state with a relatively small population, the societal impact of the Kealoha investigation will transgress over several generations. Because this scandal was orchestrated by the highest levels of leadership, it will take years to reverse the Department’s tarnished reputation by the self-possessing actions of just two individuals (BOH.com, 2018).
Last year, Susan Ballard was elected as the new Chief of HPD. As the first woman to hold the position, Chief Ballard exhibits a fresh and renewed image of the Department. She vows to prioritize the community’s best interest and work to alleviate the impact of the Kealohas’ reputation among the general public.
Since her appointment, Chief Ballard has shifted the direction of HPD to incorporate a community-based policing initiative (BOH.com, 2018). This method encourages officers to work directly with the public in order to acquire a comprehensive understanding of the qualities and deficiencies prevalent within the community (Solar, 2015). By increasing the presence of police officers in the public eye, community-based policing strives to strengthen the community’s trust with their local department and empower them to immediately report injustices committed against them (Solar, 2015). This ultimately grants police officers with a more complete picture of criminal activity within their jurisdictions and allows them to rely on their fellow community members to provide intelligence about criminal behavior before it escalates (Solar, 2015). While the aura of the Kealoha investigation will not vanish overnight, there is hope that Chief Ballard’s invigorating leadership will lead to positive changes within HPD and the greater judiciary.
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