Yesterday’s extraordinary events in Honolulu’s Federal District Court, and the response of the chairman of the Honolulu Police Commission, demonstrated again that “police accountability” is a contradiction in terms here in our fair city.
It’s time for the commission chairman to step down, and for new leadership to shake up the commission and its approach to its duties. The City Council and the mayor also have to be held to account about the sad state of affairs.
Yesterday’s major shock was the decision by federal prosecutors to throw out charges against Gerard Puana, uncle of the wife of Police Chief Louis Kealoha. Puana had been accused of stealing the mailbox from the chief’s former house in Kahala, following an investigation by HPD.
The move, according to news reports, was taken after prosecutors reviewed evidence collected by Puana’s attorney, Alexander Silvert, who has publicly alleged police misconduct in the case.
According to the Star-Advertiser:
Silvert said he met with prosecutors following the mistrial because he and Puana decided to put their faith and trust in the integrity of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “We presented our entire case, from top to bottom, to the prosecutors,” Silvert said. He said that included evidence he and investigators from his office uncovered during their own investigation.
Silvert said he also told federal prosecutors what eight of the jurors told him after Kobayashi had discharged them.
“All eight had said to us that after they saw the videotape (of the theft), they had already decided (Puana) was not guilty,” Silvert said.
Here’s the top of the title page from the docket of Puana’s federal court case, stamped simply, “Closed”.
But the story isn’t that simple.
The dismissal is a big deal on its own. But prosecutors went further, dismissing the case “with prejudice,” meaning that charges cannot be refiled, and asking the FBI to review the evidence, presumably to consider whether crimes were committed by police.
According to Hawaii News Now:
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen this happen,” says legal expert Ken Lawson, a University of Hawaii law professor, “The prosecution… not just dismissed it, but dismissed it with prejudice. And ‘with prejudice’ means not only are we dismissing your case, but we’re never bringing it back.”
Lawson is not involved with this federal trial, but has worked many federal cases in various states.
“There’s cause for great concern,” he says, “If I’m the chief of police, I’ve got a lawyer now.”
Prior to yesterday’s dismissal, there was a flurry of communications between prosecutors and attorneys, all of which were sealed and unavailable for public inspection. Click here for a list of documents filed with the court under seal since the December 4, 2014 mistrial, which was caused by Kealoha’s unsolicited disclosure of information about Puana’s history during his trial testimony. Observers say it was a rookie error, and unusual for an experienced police officer.
Instead of expressing concern about the unusual turn of events, which puts HPD in a very bad light, Police Commission Chairman Ron Taketa came out sounding like a spokesman for Chief Kealoha rather than the head of a panel which is supposed to provide independent oversight of the police on behalf of the public.
Without seeing any of the evidence that prompted the about-face by federal prosecutors and another federal investigation of HPD, Taketa used the opportunity to vouch for the chief.
The Star-Advertiser reported:
Police Commission Chairman Taketa said he believes the commission’s hands are tied in making public statements about the mistrial because a federal investigation is underway and because the department has rules about releasing personal information about police employees, including the chief.
And if the chief were found guilty of any wrongdoing, any discipline would likely be confidential because the case is considered a personnel matter.
Taketa added, however, that the commission holds the chief to a higher standard than other city employees and that he has been forthcoming with the commission, alerting it to his family dispute.
“He was honestly sincere about apologizing for what he said,” Taketa said. “He just admitted that it was error and it was spur of the moment and he regretted it.”
He continued: “The mistrial was the furthest thing from his mind as to what he wanted coming out of that trial. There’s actually in my opinion no reason to believe that he would have benefited from a mistrial.”
At minimum, I would have expected someone in Taketa’s position to express serious concern about the extraordinary circumstances and pledge to take action if the evidence, or the FBI probe, reveals departmental misconduct.
Instead, we had the chairman singing the chief’s praises, as if none of the other events of the day had taken place.
Taketa, the financial secretary and business representative for the Hawaii Carpenters Union, was first appointed to the police commission back in about 1990, and served for at least 15 years, and was appointed again in 2011. It would appear that his relationship is far too cozy with HPD to exert any real oversight.