Honolulu’s police chief and his wife say a federal grand jury targeting them can be traced in part to what they call “vindictive and illegal investigations” by the Honolulu Ethics Commission, and they’re suing to set the record straight.
The thousand-page lawsuit, filed Friday, is against the city, the commission, a former investigator and the agency’s longtime director who, just days before, had quit after saying he had cases in limbo and had difficulties bringing charges in general.
Whether this latest twist ends up clearing anybody or just muddying more names remains to be seen, and it takes the fight into yet another jurisdiction.
The plaintiffs in the suit are Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, his deputy prosecutor wife, Katherine, and their daughter (the suit says the daughter is a named plaintiff because of distress they allege was inflicted by the investigator’s interaction with her school, and by peer response to the accusations against her parents).
The suit alleges corruption at the Honolulu Ethics Commission under Chuck Totto, who resigned as ethics director last week, and former ethics investigator Letha DeCaires, a retired Honolulu police captain.
The Kealohas separately are the subject of a now more than year-long federal investigation and grand jury looking into allegations of corruption at their hands.
Many of the alleged offenses the feds are looking into have been widely leaked to the media, and several had first been raised in a slew of Ethics Commission investigations against the Kealohas; none of the nearly 20 Ethics Commission cases have yet resulted in final charges or signed settlements.
The Kealohas’ lawsuit piles on hundreds of pages of documentation in an attempt to debunk allegations of their wrongdoing. The Kealohas also charge that Ethics Commission investigations, referrals of their suspicions to other agencies, and, they say, leaks of them to the media were motivated by vendettas and not legitimate complaints.
“You’re trying to say listen, they’re not telling the whole side,” said Ken Lawson of the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson Law School. “When there are leaks coming out, one side against the other, and you just have two citizens, the only way to get your story out when you’ve been wronged is to sue, to take it back to the same forum in which your name is being ruined in, and then just bring it.”
While the suit seeks damages for a range of losses, it also wants the Ethics Commission’s procedures to be corrected, to fix what the Kealohas say are breaches of the law.
The Kealohas had previously filed a civil rights complaint alleging minorities have received worse treatment than Caucasians for the past 16 years under Totto, and that became a federal case the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken up.
Whether any of this had to do with Totto’s departure or the commission board’s recent abrasive tact toward him is not known. None of the defendants wanted to comment on the suit, but here’s what they told KHON2 separately on the day of Totto’s resignation last Wednesday:
“We thank him. We wish him the best,” said Ethics Commission chairwoman Victoria Marks. “The Ethics Commission is still operating. We will be using our best efforts to quickly hire people to fill the vacancies that we now have.”
“I think that for whatever reason, some of the commissioners have been very critical, highly critical of some of my work and my performance,” Totto said.
“This is an unfortunate end to a career devoted to demanding ethics in city government,” Peter Carlisle said last week. Carlisle served as Totto’s attorney in the employment matters. “As a friend, my opinion is this was undeserved, shabby treatment of somebody who had given so much, so well to the City and County of Honolulu.”
Carlisle’s name also surfaces in the lawsuit, which goes beyond the Kealohas’ own experience with the commission. The suit alleges Totto went easy on then-Mayor Carlisle over his wife’s travel expenses.
The ties to the commission’s turmoil, the lawsuit and today’s mayoral race don’t end with just Carlisle.
Candidate Charles Djou said on the day Totto quit: “It was only when Chuck Totto started investigating the political fundraising practices of Kirk Caldwell, and then started questioning some of the votes on the rail project, then and only then did Chuck Totto all of a sudden get into hot water, and it was hot water specifically with the Caldwell appointees to the city Ethics Commission.”
Caldwell’s spokesman, Andrew Pereira, told KHON2 in a statement: “The mayor’s position has always been hands-off when it concerns the Ethics Commission. The mayor depends on the board to carry out the functions and duties, and that hasn’t changed with the filing of this lawsuit.”
They say Totto looked the other way by blessing a lucrative Board of Water Supply contract on smart meters for an ex-BWS-employee-turned-contractor after a whistleblower stepped forward. The suit goes on to say it didn’t end well for the whistleblower.
Transcripts of an Ethics Commission witness Q&A appear to document potentially false and defamatory statements by Ethics staff to the witness they were questioning, on things like a solar permit and installation on the Kealoha home that turned out to be legitimate. After Ethics dug into it, the Kealohas say they got audited by the state Tax Department over solar credits, only to be cleared by the state after its review.
The documents also delve into more details about a family financial dispute over a grandmother’s money, which led to a civil case Katherine Kealoha won, and a related mailbox theft case that targeted the uncle as a suspect, but ended in a federal mistrial.
The lawsuit gives Katherine Kealoha’s side of the story on a key leak coming from the grand jury alleging she violated the uncle’s civil rights and committed illegal search and seizure by entering the uncle’s residence in 2011, possibly accompanied by police, and taking his belongings.
The new Kealoha suit documents that she was there to gather her uncle’s belongings by request, to be taken to a drug treatment center he had been court-assigned to, and she provides the bail receipt she paid for the related arrest. The suit points out the financial dispute did not start until years later, and that the family was on good terms in 2011.
And there is much, much more – about 1,000 pages.
“The size of the suit tells the whole story,” Lawson said. “It’s saying, ‘You know what, we’ve been telling you all there’s another side to this story. No one’s been believing us. Somehow you just believe whatever comes out of this side. Here’s the lawsuit and the documents to prove what we’ve been saying all along that the whole process is not fair.’”
None of the defendants of the Kealohas’ civil suit are talking, so we asked on their behalf: “Anybody can sue over anything; to those defendants who are being accused in this very lengthy lawsuit, what can you say to their defense?”
“It’s the same thing. We won’t know until it’s all ferreted out in a court of law,” Lawson said.
Always Investigating continued, “But many of their complaints are with the method and the persistence of the Ethics Commission staff and investigators. Isn’t that what we want in an Ethics Commission? Someone who doggedly goes after potential wrongdoing?”
“You do, but you don’t want it being done with a personal agenda,” Lawson said, “and if there’s evidence the Ethics Commission is being used to further personal agendas, then it’s wrong.”
Again, none of the defendants are yet speaking out about their side of this lawsuit, but we’ll follow up to extend the opportunity, and to report back on this case’s next steps, the separate ongoing federal grand jury, and whether any procedures do or even need to change at the Ethics Commission as it rebuilds.