There’s a new member of the Honolulu Police Commission, and in the midst of a lot of questions about Chief Louis Kealoha’s leadership, Loretta Sheehan is not holding back her opinion.
Sheehan was confirmed Wednesday by the Honolulu City Council in an 8-to-1 vote. She’ll be sworn in on Aug. 17.
As she faced the council for the vote, she made it clear how she feels about the current police commission’s actions when it comes to the federal grand jury investigation into alleged corruption by Kealoha.
Sheehan took her commission colleagues to task, saying they haven’t done enough to dig into what’s behind allegations against the chief.
The police commission’s chairman says they’ve done all they’re empowered to do, when there’s been no indictment from a grand jury that’s been going on for more than a year.
The confirmation hearing before the full council got off to a tense start. Sheehan had gone through Q&A with some councilmembers at the committee level prior but faced more questions on the final vote day.
“Unfortunately, you did not show up and you did not call,” Councilmember Trevor Ozawa told her, referring to a scheduled meeting. “I thought that was a little irresponsible of you. I personally reached out to you again and did not get any phone calls or any email back from you.”
“I was wrong for missing that meeting,” Sheehan said, adding she had been communicating through the mayor’s office instead. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
“My feelings aren’t hurt. I represent 110,000 people and you’re going to be on a commission in which their lives are affected,” Ozawa said, then followed up with questions about the commission’s powers as it related to the chief of police.
Sheehan held little back with how she thinks the commission should be handling leadership priorities.
“The police commission right now could be having hearings and deciding whether the chief of police should continue to be our chief of police,” Sheehan said, “and they could remove him right now.”
Ron Taketa, the commission’s chairman, has maintained they’re doing everything within their power, balanced with fairness.
“Under the current charter, the commission needs cause in order to remove the chief,” he told Always Investigating. “Right now, we have speculation. We have rumors. We understand an investigation is going on, but we have no cause at this time. Everyone is entitled to due process, even the chief of police.”
Sheehan says the commission should launch its own investigation and dig into details of the Kealohas’ spat with Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, Gerard Puana, which prompted Puana’s mailbox-theft-case defense attorney Alexander Silvert to go to the feds with corruption allegations.
“It appears that he (Chief Kealoha) has lost public trust,” Sheehan told the council. “It appears to me he has mismanaged episodes of officer misconduct in the recent past. I would like more information about his role in the Puana case. I’d like to speak with first assistant public defender Ali Silvert to find out what evidence of wrongdoing or potential wrongdoing he uncovered.”
Always Investigating asked Taketa, why not meet with those who publicly are saying ‘I took evidence to the feds’? Why not meet with them to hear more about what they have to say?
“We’re not equipped to handle a criminal investigation… We can’t carry out a parallel investigation to the federal grand jury process,” Taketa said. “We have one eye on the department and the chief, and the other eye on the city and its liabilities. We need to protect both, liabilities in terms of any wrongful termination suit that may occur if we act without any proper reason. We’re just awaiting the outcome of the federal investigation and we certainly will take whatever action is appropriate at that time.”
Sheehan, explaining her perspective for more immediate action to the city council, invoked a 1930s case involving falsely accused citizens in a high-profile rape case that ended in a hung jury. A former suspect was subsequently killed, and the police commission was formed in the wake of the turmoil.
“We have a historic mandate to move forward and investigate the chief of police,” Sheehan said. “Here we are 84 years later and the chief of police is under investigation for having manufactured evidence and framing another human being. It’s not ironic that’s exactly what happened in the Massie trial.”
Myles Breiner, attorney for the chief and the chief’s wife, had this to say: “Loretta Sheehan is a very competent, a very, very bright, intelligent person. I have to believe she would look into this matter very thoroughly before she makes any comments or reaches any conclusions with the commission on what the appropriate action is to be taken, should any action be taken, involving the chief.”
“It has to be done in a public way,” Sheehan said of her suggested approach to an investigation. “The chief must be afforded every single opportunity to respond, to repair identified deficiencies, to address any identified shortcomings. It’s not something that anyone or anybody should do quickly or without careful consideration.”
The city charter gives the commission the power to fire a chief for cause, but voters could end up broadening the panel’s options.
“Charter amendments would allow the commission to remove a chief simply for the lack of public trust, egregious isolated acts, or if the fit just isn’t right anymore, so I support it,” Sheehan said.
“No one else is asked in any investigation in the public sector, the private sector, to step aside merely on an allegation,” Breiner said. “If they are independent, they’re going to look at all sides and listen to all aspects of this.”
The council strongly backed Sheehan in their confirmation vote, with just Ozawa voting against her confirmation.
“I’m just wondering how that’s going to jive with somebody coming in, with somebody wanting to do things that by law are not possible and incongruent with the current chair of the commission,” Ozawa said upon casting his vote. “I don’t know how that’s going to work out.”