Honolulu Prosecutor’s Race: What Matters Most in Politics 2020

From Left: Ken Lawson, mediator, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, Steve Alm, RJ Brown, Jacquelyn Esser, Megan Kau and Tai W. Kim, the five candidates that participated in the Honolulu Prosecutor Debate, hosted by the Hawai’i Innocence Project at the University of Hawaii Jan. 28. Photo by Victoria Talbot
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The Hawai’i Innocence Project hosted a revealing debate for the Honolulu Prosecutor’s last month at Orvis Hall, University of Hawai’i, which emphasized the conflict this state has with trust in our elected officials.

Five candidates answered questions on a range of topics from the death penalty to homelessness; but throughout, the underlying theme was about restoring public trust.


That is the most important question: how to restore trust.

The conviction of former deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha and her husband, former Police Chief Louis Kealoha on federal conspiracy charges and obstruction charges in June, along with two police officers, is one of the worst public corruption cases in Hawai’i’s history and will cost the state and county millions of taxpayer dollars.

After 16 years in office, Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro received a target letter from the Justice Department last April, informing him that he too, is under investigation in the federal corruption probe. He is currently on paid leave.

With top law enforcement under indictment or in jail, that says a lot about Hawaii’s criminal justice system.

The candidates included Megan Kau, a former deputy prosecutor who is a practicing criminal defense attorney; Deputy Public Defender Jacquelyn Esser; former Judge Steve Alm, Prosecutor and United States Attorney; Civil Litigator, former Deputy Prosecuting Attorney RJ Brown; and practicing criminal attorney Tae Kim.

It should be noted that the current Acting Prosecutor, Dwight Nadamoto did not appear at the debate, though he has reportedly filed papers. In the ongoing investigation, he was called before the Grand Jury and was questioned for three hours.

Alm stood out as the most “imbedded” candidate. He is running a campaign that will include his network, he said, “Leading a team of prosecutors to restore the public trust.” He spoke frequently of his experience and leadership, and of how he would handle and train deputy prosecutors. He talked about his connections and those who would join him in office.

For the voter who is looking for a seamless, uninterrupted flow of “business as usual”, this is your candidate. Supporters contributing more than $100 include the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO), a Honolulu police commissioner and Police Chief Darryl Perry of Kauai.

And while Alm is a candidate sure to have name recognition, his fundraising, at about $100,000, has been bested by political newcomer Megan Kau, by about $20,000.

(For a complete report of fundraising, visit the Campaign Spending Commission.)

On the other side of the political spectrum was Jacquelyn Esser.

Esser brought a lively crew of supporters wearing her teeshirts, seemingly culled from among the students at the University.

Her opening statement included buzz words like “healing,” and “transition.” She spoke of crime prevention and framed the Prosecutor’s office as a place for prevention and victim’s resources.

However, she expressed a deep reluctance to jail ethnic offenders, which could be hard on the victims.

RJ Brown wants to have monthly community forums to restore trust. He sees the criminal justice system as an opportunity for diversion programs, versus jail terms.

Youthful and energetic, Brown and Esser framed the Prosecutor’s office as a stop on the way to treatment for drug abuse and mental health issues – in a public health system that currently, does not exist.

Fundraising for Esser was reported at $20,000; for Brown at $24,000.

Tae Kim, who has practiced law as a defense attorney in Honolulu for 28 years, is not flashy. He is probably a great guy, but he may not be a political animal. He attended all of Oahu’s 33 neighborhood board meetings, in which the Prosecutor is the only elected official that does not have a presence at those meetings. He says he will have representation, reaching out to the community. His donations have totaled $1,800.

Megan Kau, who runs her own firm and served as a deputy prosecuting attorney under former mayor and prosecutor Peter Carlisle, opened by explaining that she is a survivor. She has overcome domestic violence and homelessness, two afflictions which are not an abstract to her. She has lived them and succeeded to rise above those circumstances to become a successful attorney and a candidate for office.

Kau also has the most contributions, with a total of $123,000. She is impressive. Kau has gone on record to criticize the powerful SHOPO union for their support of Judge Alm, citing SHOPO’s unwavering support for ex-police chief Louis Kealoha, in spite of the weight of the evidence against him, up until the moment he was convicted.

Questions in the debate covered the gamut of social issues, including homelessness, perceived racial bias in the criminal justice system, drug addiction and mental illness, and treatment and diversion programs, victims rights and most of all, integrity.

And while Brown and Esser believe that the criminal justice system should be redirecting to treatment, social services and mental health instead of incarcerating people, especially Native Hawaiians, Kau points out that it is not the prosecutor’s job to legislate; that is the job of legislators. It is the prosecutor’s job to implement the letter of the law.

And what is important here is that a lot of flowery speech doesn’t address changing laws to meet the circumstances of drug addiction and homelessness. Those issues must be addressed by our elected officials. As citizens, it is we who must elect officials who are responsive to their constituents – not their own interests.

What the debate shows is how candidates have lined up and how the public is engaged. What is most interesting is that there is a groundswell for Kau – not Alm. He is not standing at the top of the heap.

Perhaps the scandals of the past year have made an impression on the voters of Hawaii, enough to engage and inspire the electorate to vote out “business as usual.”





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