Police chief on leave, officers also on restricted duty amid federal investigation

Honolulu’s chief of police, Louis Kealoha, placed himself on restricted duty Tuesday and has agreed to go on leave for at least 30 days.

It’s the biggest fallout yet from conspiracy allegations within the Honolulu Police Department.

The official announcement comes a day after the FBI sent the chief and four other officers letters saying they’re targets of a federal investigation. A target letter essentially lets a person know he or she is a target of an investigation, advises them to get an attorney, and to talk to federal prosecutors.

Always Investigating first reported the news Monday night, when the police chief sent KHON2 the following statement:

There is no economic advantage to my staying on as chief, but if I leave the department now, I give credence to the baseless attacks. I am voluntarily placing myself on ROPA status. I will continue to stand up for my police officers even if it means continued criticism from those who either do not care to understand, or who are pursuing their own political agenda.

– Chief Louis Kealoha

Details of the alleged conspiracy were revealed late last week when retired officer Niall Silva struck a plea deal with investigators.

Silva pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in what prosecutors described as a conspiracy framing Gerard Puana for mailbox theft in 2013. Puana is the uncle of Kealoha’s wife, Katherine Kealoha, a deputy prosecutor.

Who is the acting chief?

Now that Chief Kealoha has placed himself on restricted duty, senior deputy police chief Cary Okimoto becomes the acting police chief. It’s a decision dictated by department policy.

Okimoto previously oversaw the crime reduction unit. He was seen at federal grand jury proceedings, but when asked about his involvement Tuesday, would not say more, citing sealed, confidential proceedings.

Okimoto says he has not received a target letter. If he did, he would be required to step down.

As of Tuesday, Chief Kealoha is on paid leave and has agreed to surrender his police powers, but how long he remains as the chief is still a big question mark.

Max Sword, acting chair of the Honolulu Police Commission, says Kealoha has surrendered his badge and firearm, and deputy chief Cary Okimoto will serve as acting chief.

“Chief Kealoha will not report to work nor exercise any supervisory or administrative powers over the department,” Sword said. He admits the decision came after a discussion.

“He was just going to ROPA (restriction of police authority) and then after discussion, we came to an agreement that he is going to leave the building,” Sword said.

“In this particular situation, being that he’s the chief of police, the reason why I believe he’s being placed on leave is because if he was to be reassigned and walks around the station or is at a desk, he’s still, people still see him as the chief,” Okimoto said.

Click here to read Sword’s letter to Kealoha.

As for the four officers who also received target letters, Okimoto said “all of the officers will have their police powers removed and will be reassigned.”

He adds that HPD’s Professional Standards Office (formerly known as Internal Affairs) is also currently investigating the officers.

What happens to the chief next remains up in the air. Sword would not go as far as to say that the chief should be fired, but it will likely be discussed at the commission’s next meeting on Jan. 4.

“Given what has transpired so far, just the idea of bringing the chief back into that position, how difficult would that be just getting the confidence of all the other officers?” KHON2 asked Sword.

“Ask me after the fourth and I can give you that answer,” he replied. “I can’t comment at this point. When we meet with the rest of the commission, we will come up with a game plan on what we need to do and proceed forward.”

Sword tells us he tried to set up an emergency meeting for an earlier date, but because of the holiday, not enough commission members were available before Jan. 4. They needed at least four out of the seven members for a quorum.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell spoke with the chief before going on vacation and is asking the commission to decide sooner than later.

“For the sake of the police force, Mayor Caldwell feels this situation cannot be allowed to drag on and is urging the police commission to take decisive action at its January commission meeting,” said city managing director Roy Amemiya.

Attorney: Chief Kealoha will not speak to federal prosecutors

Myles Breiner, the Kealohas’ attorney, tells Always Investigating Chief Kealoha won’t be talking to federal prosecutors.

Always Investigating: Does he plan to meet in the near future with anyone from the federal prosecution?

Breiner: Not going to happen, no.

Always Investigating: Why?

Breiner: Why? Because the chief’s done nothing wrong. There’s nothing for him to, there’s no sword for him to fall on. There’s no reason to come forward and admit to something he didn’t do. … As far as the chief is concerned he has done nothing wrong, his wife has done nothing wrong, and he is looking forward to his day in court if it becomes necessary to defend his good name. … The fact is both he and his wife have been in the crosshairs of the special prosecutor Michael Wheat for well over a year now. I suspect that anything he says that doesn’t comport with the U.S. Attorney’s perspective on HPD and what occurred in the Puana case would run contrary to the chief’s best interest. The fact is the chief has done nothing wrong and he looks forward to being vindicated.

Always Investigating: How does that process work then, if he is not going to agree to have any conversations in advance with the prosecutors, but instead wait for a possible indictment?

Breiner: Well, it could happen. Target letters are sent out to help create more evidence. If the U.S. attorney had sufficient evidence to indict, he would have already indicted.

Breiner says Katherine Kealoha, presumed to be the person the feds list as alleged “co-conspirator 1” in a related plea agreement, has not received a target letter.

Always Investigating: If Katherine Kealoha is ultimately a suspect as well as these others, will she necessarily be receiving a target letter or could it go straight to an indictment?

Breiner: It can go either way. Very often with grand jury investigations, they try to get the individuals on the periphery of the investigation. They receive target letters to come in and cooperate, and they often don’t get charged. In some cases, they do get charged, and they’re brought in anyway to put further pressure on the true targets of the investigation.

Always Investigating: Why is the chief hanging onto the job, under the circumstances?

Breiner: Because he knows he’s done nothing wrong. If he resigns under a cloud, it’s an admission, or a tacit admission by implication. He’s done something wrong.

What, if anything, the chief or his wife will say about the other remains to be seen, due to spousal immunity.

“Neither spouse can be compelled to give testimony against each other. The privilege remains solely with each spouse,” Breiner said, “so if they chose individually to give testimony, that’s something different, but someone externally, an independent third party, cannot compel them to give testimony against each other.”

The head of the police union, SHOPO president Tenari Maafala, thinks the chief should not have to be on leave during the investigation, saying a restriction of powers and reassignment would be enough, even for the top cop.

Honolulu Police Department morale

What does this seemingly “black eye” do to the morale of the department and to the public? The question was raised numerous times Tuesday.

“Today is not a good day. I’ll tell you that,” Okimoto said, “but I think this is a first big step in letting the rank-and-file and everyone know that we are moving on.”

Both HPD and the city say this will not have any impact to public safety. HPD’s acting chief and commission chairman say the whole department should not be judged on these recent events.

“If you’re being put on paid leave then you should at least still be working, so ROPA is not a guilty sentence if you will, but it’s a place to allow whomever has been put on ROPA to continue to work,” Maafala said. “Just as long as they don’t compromise the investigation that they’re being investigated for.”

Always Investigating asked Maafala, couldn’t some in the public, and those on the force, see a chief there on ROPA just too much of a distraction to get any effective work done?

“Sure, it could be. It all depends on your perspective on it,” Maafala said. “First and foremost, I applaud the chief for putting himself on ROPA. This tells me he himself is not above the policies that he is mandated to uphold and enforce.”

Under these new circumstances, will there be a point in time in which your organization takes a vote of confidence or no confidence?

“Oh yeah, if it rises to that level,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have any reason to put out a vote of confidence against the chief. We have not had any outcry from our members that we should ask the chief and pressure the chief to resign. I’ve had many officers that approached me who have not been disciplined, and they say, ‘Brother T, where are we going with this?’ And I tell them, ‘Well, look, just continue to do the job that we do.’”

Meanwhile the county prosecutor has been standing behind his deputy, Katherine Kealoha. We’ll keep tabs on whether her job or the chief’s status changes.

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