Honolulu’s top prosecutor, Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, is embroiled in a sprawling tale of corruption and malfeasance that is now threatening the very legitimacy of his leadership. From local voters to Hawaii’s Attorney General, the calls for Kaneshiro to step down from his job are coming fast and loud in the wake of an FBI investigation focused on one of his most senior employees, former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha. Hawaii’s highest court has asked Kaneshiro to respond to the Attorney General’s extraordinary request that he be temporarily suspended from practicing law until the legal matters implicating him are resolved.
Katherine Kealoha has been indicted by the Justice Department on more than fifty charges ranging from drug dealing to public corruption stemming from her time as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Kaneshiro’s office. Among the most egregious allegations, Kealoha is said to have worked with her husband – the former Police Chief of Honolulu – to falsify charges against a relative with whom she was having a financial dispute, and to thwart the prosecution of her brother – a local doctor – for illegally prescribing opioids for profit. The indictments have come in waves over the past two years, and Kealoha is now facing three separate trials. The latest indictment is the first to implicate Kaneshiro, though it has been known for some weeks that the FBI recently sent him a “target letter” – that is, a letter notifying him that he was under investigation. Hawaii News Now reports:
“In court filings Wednesday, federal prosecutors offered new details into the investigation into Katherine Kealoha’s alleged misconduct as a deputy city prosecutor ― along with the role that city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro allegedly played.
In the document, prosecutors alleged that Kealoha lied to a judge to fix a speeding ticket received by her electrician ― and then fabricated a grand jury investigation to justify fixing the ticket.
As Hawaii News Now first reported, Kaneshiro and other top deputies were also leading that grand jury.
The revelations, which came on the same day that Kealoha pleaded not guilty along with her brother in 54-count indictment that accuses them in a large drug conspiracy, are increasing pressure on Kaneshiro to put himself on leave.”
See a copy of the government’s motion here.
Two former prosecutors who were subpoenaed to testify against Kaneshiro before a grand jury as part of the federal investigation told Hawaii News Now that they are now experiencing retaliation in the office. One of the women testified to witnessing large numbers of documents being shredded at the administrative office of a safe house controlled by Kaneshiro while its director papered over a surveillance camera to obscure what was happening.
Late last year, a citizens’ petition was filed to remove Kaneshiro from office and, because the threshold number of signatures were gathered, impeachment hearings have been set for March. The City Council has provided funding for Kaneshiro’s legal representation. All the while, the calls for Kaneshiro to step aside have continued to escalate.
In the face of his continued resistance, it became clear that the Attorney General’s office was the only agency that could trigger more immediate action. Last week, Hawaii Attorney General Clare E. Connors filed a writ with the Hawaii Supreme Court asking that Kaneshiro be suspended from practicing law until the federal investigation is completed. Connors told the Honolulu Star Advertiser:
“This is an extraordinary situation, to be very clear. There has not been, as far as we could tell, a situation like this before. So we wanted to be very careful as to how we proceeded, as to how we addressed the situation and identifying this conflict. … We believe it requires immediate action.”
The Hawaii Supreme Court ordered Kaneshiro to respond within twenty days.
The first of Kealoha’s trials is set to move forward on April 1.
Needless to say, what is occurring in Honolulu’s law enforcement community right now is a scandal of epic proportions, and the Prosecuting Attorney’s office is at its center. Between the impeachment proceedings against Kaneshiro, the Supreme Court writ and the federal criminal trial of Kealoha, there will be plenty more to report in the coming months.