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Video of former city Corporation Counsel Donna Leong being handcuffed and perp-walked into FBI offices to be served a federal conspiracy indictment epitomized a sorry period of city governance.

As with other corruption cases associated with jailed former police Chief Louis Kealoha and his prosecutor wife, Katherine, the feds are addressing alleged malfeasance that local authorities had every reason to suspect but ignored.

Leong, the top city attorney under former Mayor Kirk Caldwell, faces charges along with Caldwell’s Managing Director Roy Amemiya and former Police Commission Chairman Max Sword over a controversial $250,000 payout to Louis Kealoha when he retired as the U.S. attorney closed in.

The indictment charged they illegally redirected police funds intended to hire new officers to pay Kealoha and conspired to parcel the payments to avert required approval of the City Council, allegedly referred to by Sword as the “nine bananas.”

Concerns about the payment were no secret at the time to the Council, Caldwell or city and state prosecutors, but none acted. The U.S. attorney investigated because federal funds were involved.

Then-acting Police Chief Cary Okimoto publicly objected to the payment. He and his deputies told the Police Commission, Council and Caldwell administration that HPD didn’t have funds to cover the outlay, and expressed belief that Council approval was required. His concerns were covered in the media.

The indictment alleged Okimoto was pressured by defendants to drop his objections and conceal the true source of the funds to avoid Council involvement, with a warning from Amemiya that he was “burning bridges.”

Okimoto wasn’t on the list of finalists for permanent chief and retired.

Leong’s attorney said the payout was necessary to “expeditiously separate former chief Kealoha from HPD,” but there was no reason to rush.

Kealoha was already on leave, and police commissioners could have simply fired him for cause, of which they had plenty. He might have sued, but so what? You don’t use public money to pay off crooks without a fight.

Caldwell is running for governor, and his attorney said he would “be interested in the coming days and weeks to understand the charges that have been brought.”

He considered himself a hands-on mayor, and Amemiya and Leong were among his closest aides, fueling speculation about his knowledge of the transaction.

Caldwell refused to put Amemiya on leave after he received a federal target letter, and Councilman Calvin Say later hired Amemiya as an aide to boost his city pension despite the likely pending indictment.

While local leaders regarded $250,000 as no big deal, the U.S. attorney rightly took a dim view of proper procedure being brazenly circumvented to hand out federal cash to a soon-to-be felon.

The defendants will get a fair hearing on their innocent pleas, but in federal court there’s little hope of a friendly ruling from a local judge, such as Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm suggested was the case in the recent dismissal of drunken driving charges against state Rep. Sharon Har.


Reach David Shapiro at volcanicash@gmail.com.


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