Court showdown as Kaneshiro fights federal attempt to compel testimony

Keith Kaneshiro

After calling the federal grand jury process targeting Honolulu’s police chief and his wife “a circus,” Honolulu’s prosecutor took on the feds Thursday in what shaped up to be a dramatic showdown behind locked courtroom doors.

The special attorney assigned to the case from the U.S. Attorney’s San Diego office wants a federal judge to demand testimony and subpoenaed documents that sources say the county prosecutor is refusing to give.

Is what Kaneshiro’s holding back key to the feds’ allegations of corruption against the police chief and his wife? Or is it an overreach that could jeopardize justice in unrelated cases and breach the privacy of local residents and public workers?

U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson is now in the mix to sort out who has to say and hand over what.

Special federal prosecutor Michael Wheat and his team have been conducting a federal grand jury. In its sights, Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his deputy county prosecutor wife Katherine, and possibly others, on allegations like corruption and civil rights violations.

It’s been going since last year without any indictments yet, leading Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro – Katherine’s boss — to tell us last month: “I’m appalled by what’s going on in the federal grand jury. It’s not only spiraled out of control, it is a circus. It’s is a parade.”

Kaneshiro has been subpoenaed not only to come testify multiple times but also, sources say, to provide an extensive list of documents that go beyond just his employee and her work for the county. What is sought casts a net some feel is too wide and could jeopardize unrelated cases, while also digging into private records of dozens if not hundreds of local residents and public workers unrelated to the Kealoha allegations.

“A grand jury should not be used for a fishing expedition,” Kaneshiro said, referring to “a list of witnesses, all kinds of people they’re calling, without showing relevancy of those witnesses.”

On Thursday, it came to a boiling point when the federal prosecutor and the local prosecutor headed into the federal courtroom of Judge Watson for a hearing marked “sealed” on Watson’s calendar. The doors were locked behind them. Sources say the feds were there to try compel testimony Kaneshiro is refusing to give, and that Kaneshiro was defending his opposition to the move.

Both Kaneshiro and Wheat did not comment on the court proceedings and outcome. After we observed Kaneshiro and Wheat exit the sealed-courtroom event, we asked the Kealohas’ defense attorney, Myles Breiner, to weigh in on what can transpire in cases like this involving motions to compel testimony, and responses in opposition.

“I suspect Mr. Kaneshiro has serious concerns about the length and breadth of the request to produce records,” Breiner said, “especially if the records involve confidential personal information, potentially ongoing investigations, investigations that may involve confidential informants.”

Kaneshiro had previously told us getting hauled before a federal judge could be a strategy to help shine light on questionable conduct in a grand jury. Grand juries usually are directed by the prosecutors seeking the indictments, free of a judge’s input.

“Many cases have held that the judges can oversee what’s happening at grand jury, but it has to be brought to their attention, and there are two ways,” Kaneshiro explained in May. “One way is a witness refuses to testify and therefore they have to give immunity to the witness, and how they give immunity is they have to take the witness before the judge and indicate why the witness should be given immunity to testify. The second way is the witness refuses to disclose evidence that is subpoenaed. So if the grand jury wants that evidence, they have to take that witness before a judge to get the court to order that witness to disclose that piece of evidence.”

“It was an important opportunity to express to the federal District Court, to Judge Watson, his (Kaneshiro’s) concern that the government investigation conducted by Mr. Wheat is out of control,” Breiner said.

Always Investigating asked, what can the outcome of such a hearing be today, for both sides?

“Potentially, Mr. Kaneshiro could be held in contempt, but I think that would be extraordinary,” Breiner said. “The court technically could either enforce the request by the government, compel the testimony, or the court could do an in-camera (private) review, in other words, review any documents being compelled before turning them over to the U.S. Attorney.

“Mr. Kaneshiro is doing exactly what he needs to do,” Breiner added, “which is to stand up and take responsibility for his office and demand the court give him direction on how to comply, but at the same time protect the integrity of his department.”

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