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The ‘mailbox conspiracy’ and what it says about corruption in Hawaii

Hawaii doesn’t have any more or less corruption than any other part of the country, but it does lack whistleblowers and introspection, which makes combating corruption so difficult, according to retired federal public defender Alexander Silvert.

Silvert represented a man falsely accused of felony theft of a mailbox by former Honolulu Police Chief Louis and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a deputy city prosecutor. However, when the case ended in 2019, it was the Kealohas and a number of police officers who were sentenced to prison instead, after Silvert exposed numerous lies — and a deep web of corruption — related to their attempted frameup.

Silvert has since written a book about the case, The Mailbox Conspiracy: The Inside Story of the Greatest Corruption Case in Hawaii History,” which he talked about on the Oct. 11, 2022, episode of ThinkTech Hawaii’s “Hawaii Together” program with host Keliʻi Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

Silvert said Puana’s defense team experienced pushback from police at every turn, including unwillingness to turn over records and improperly redacting records that they did turn over. That suggested more people were involved than initially thought, yet nobody was willing to speak out. 

“None of this stuff took place in secret,” he said. “There are a lot of people who knew what happened, and no one came forward.” 

One reason for that, he said, is that Hawaii is so insular, and whistleblowers risk having to leave their entire lives behind to seek safety.

Another, he said, is Hawaii’s one-party political climate. 

Considering his own political inclinations, he said he likes that the dominant party is the Democrats. But “if the Democratic Party won’t police itself, then you have a problem,” he said. 

“People who are in law enforcement, or at the state attorney general’s office or at the prosecutor’s office who would bring these types of corruption cases, [have] to worry about their future because the people they’re going to be charging are mostly going to be part of the Democratic Party,” he said.

Regarding introspection, Silvert noted that “when a bridge falls down, engineers go out, they look at what happened and why it happened, and they make corrections. [But] in Hawaii, our institutions have absolutely refused to look inside and conduct any internal investigation of themselves, so they can correct their inaction.” 

And “the system, the establishment,” he said, “has been really powerful in stopping that from happening. So we need the public to come in and say, ‘No, we need this done, we want to know what happened.’”

In addition to honest introspection, Silvert said oversight committees need to be held responsible for failing to take action. It’s also important to update the current system that tasks the mayor — and the mayor only — with appointing various commissioners, he said.

“There were all these oversight commissions — you know, the police commission, the ethics commission and ODC, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel that oversees lawyers — who should have been involved in this case, who should have stepped in and should have tried to prevent what was happening from happening, or at least stop it from getting worse,” Silvert said. “And they all failed. Every one of those public oversight commissions failed. And the problem is nothing has been done by them since this case broke to correct their inaction.”

See the entire interview with Silvert by clicking on the video below. A complete transcript is provided.

10-11-22 Alexander Silvert on “Hawaii Together”

Keli’i Akina: Aloha everyone, and welcome to Hawaii Together on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m Keli’i Akina, your host and president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. My guest today is Alexander Silvert. He’s a retired federal public defender who has practiced law for 33 years in Hawaii. 

Now, many of you have probably heard of Alexander because of his involvement in the investigation that brought Louis and Katherine Kealoha to justice for trying to frame a relative, a Gerald Puana, for the theft of their mailbox. I’m sure you’ve at least seen some news coverage of that.

Louis Kealoha at the time was Honolulu’s police chief and his wife Katherine was a city deputy prosecutor. 

Alexander was Puana’s defense attorney, and after the trial he wrote The Mailbox Conspiracy: The Inside Story of the Greatest Corruption Case in Hawaii History.” That’s an intriguing title, and we’re going to get to talk to him about the book, but about much more than that, about corruption in general. 

Alexander joins me today to talk about the corruption covered in this book, and more importantly, we’ll talk about how we can put a stop to that kind of practice here in the state of Hawaii, in the county of Honolulu. But please welcome to the program my guest, Alexander Silvert. Alexander, welcome. Aloha to you.

Alexander Silvert: Aloha to you too. Thanks for having me.

Akina: Well, I’m so glad you’re making time for this. You’ve got an important message. But first tell me: Why public defender work? I mean, there are far more lucrative careers where you can wear even shinier shoes, and [laughter] designer suits. But public defender work? What drew you into that?

Silvert: Well, I come from  — both my parents were professors, and left wing at that, and I grew up in the late ’60s, so I was a part of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam [war] movement, and so it was very natural for me to want to do defense work. And when I went to law school, I wasn’t going to be a lawyer. I went to get a PhD in political science, and then I fell in love with trial work, and that’s how I became a public defender.

Akina: Well, that’s great. You’ve been serving the public ever since. And even now, in your retirement though, which you’ve been in for a couple of years, you’re reaching out to the public, especially with this book. 

Now, for those who may not be familiar with the case and, perhaps, not familiar with your book at all, could you give a very quick synopsis of what it’s all about?

Silvert: So everybody knows a little bit about the Kealoha case and what happened, but it was the case of U.S. v. Puana, Gerard Puana, that is the case that I represented —  Mr. Puana — and that’s the case where we uncovered the evidence of the frame-up and the fact that he was actually innocent. 

So the book is really, it’s not a law book for those who are afraid to read it because you think you’re going to get deep into law. It’s really like a murder mystery. 

Even though we know who did it, you walk with me step-by-step as I uncover all the evidence that the Kealohas did to frame Gerard. 

And I walk you through it, and then I walk you through his trial to explain what happened there, and then I talk about how difficult and how dangerous it was for me to expose the evidence. We had to get the U.S. Attorney’s office to believe us, and then to get the FBI involved and how that led to the prosecution of the Kealohas. 

So there’s a lot of information in this book that you’ve never heard about, that you’ve never seen on television or any of the news stories. So it’s really like a whodunnit.

Akina: Well, you have a very intriguing opening to the book. I love the first phrase, which is, “I didn’t do it,” my client said. “I was framed.” 

Tell us a bit about what you thought in that moment when the client came to you. In fact, did you believe him, if you’re allowed to say?

Silvert: Right. Well, I have a lot of clients who I represent. I was a federal public defender, so I get appointed to cases. And as a result of that, we represent over 85 to 90% of everybody charged in federal court. And a lot of people will come in and tell me that they’re not guilty, and I have to do a lot of work to investigate the case, to show them why the government’s evidence is strong enough to convict them. 

What the public needs to know is 96% of everyone charged in federal court actually ends up pleading guilty. So very few people go to trial, and of the people who go to trial, it’s less than 25% are found not guilty.

So when a person comes in and tells me — like Gerard did — that he’s not guilty, it’s hard for me to believe. And, in particular, in this case, because the evidence that we were told that they had was a video of the actual crime being committed, and three people — the Kealohas (high-ranking police officers), a prosecutor and another police officer, all family relatives — were going to identify the person in the video as being Gerard. 

So that’s not a very promising case. So my view of the case when I took it was: This is a guilty plea. Now we’re just going to fight to try to get him a decent sentence.

Akina: Well, the case itself involves some interesting features, and the one that stands out the most to anyone is the mailbox. You know, why try to frame someone for stealing a mailbox? What’s the significance of this mailbox?

Silvert: There were two reasons that happened. The first was, this was supposed to be a prosecution under state law, so stealing a piece of property from another — which is the mailbox — is a crime, and if the value of that mailbox is more than $300, it’s a felony crime. 

So this was supposed to be a state court case investigated by HPD [Honolulu Police Department], prosecuted by Katherine’s office or the state attorney general’s office, so that’s why it was a mailbox.

The other reason it was a mailbox was — there were actually two reasons: One, you don’t want to have someone claim they broke into your house to steal something, so the easiest thing to do here was to say that he stole the mailbox which is outside. And then secondly, Katherine claimed that there was a piece of mail in that mailbox that Gerard wanted, and that was his reason, his rationale, for stealing the mailbox.

Akina: It’s all very fascinating. In fact, there’s surveillance of that very act, which you have kind of pared down to a minute clip. Let’s go ahead and show that, and let me let you introduce that.

Silvert: Sure. [Video starts] So, there were six cameras outside the Kealoha residence, and three of them caught the alleged crime. You’re seeing one of them. This is the clip that was shown at trial. And this is the clip of the person stealing the mailbox which is allegedly Gerard Puana. 

What I want you, the viewers, to see is, I want you to take a look at how he rocks the pedestal and the mailbox and how it’s taken off. Because that’s a very important clue as to how this crime was actually staged. 

[silence while the video plays]

Akina: So Alexander, well, what’s taking place?

Silvert: So here he rocks the pedestal, takes the mailbox off the pedestal, walks back to the car, and drives away. You’ll notice, also, that you can’t really see the license plate or make of the vehicle. That was intentional. That blurry light was done so that we couldn’t see the license plate or the make of the car. 

So what you’ve seen is what we proved, was that this was completely staged. And unfortunately, to this day, we’ve never recovered the mailbox, and we don’t know who actually stole it.

Akina: Case of the missing mailbox. 

Silvert: Yes. [chuckles]

Akina: What flagged you in the very first place that your client might actually be telling the truth?

Silvert: Sure. When Katherine called 911, the police did their usual report and they took photographs. And If we can go to the photograph of the pedestal, this is from the police report. [photo is displayed] We were given a police report and the … photograph of the pedestal. And what we were told is that this was a Gaines mailbox valued at $380. 

Katherine Kealoha wrote a statement under oath saying that. HPD wrote a report saying that. HPD hired a detective as an appraiser. He wrote down that it was a Gaines mailbox valued at $380.

And that was very important, because under state law at that time, a theft of property over $300 was a felony. A theft of property under $300 is a misdemeanor. There’s a huge difference between a felony and a misdemeanor. So when Gerard was arrested, he was actually charged under state law with felony theft. 

So that was very important, and the mailbox was important because, in terms of how we decided that something was really wrong with this case right off the bat was, we sent that photograph, the police photograph of the pedestal, to the Gaines Manufacturing Co. and just asked them to confirm that this was their pedestal and that the mailbox that would be on top of that pedestal would be the mailbox that’s described in the police report. 

Because this is an expensive mailbox, it’s an interlocking system. One pedestal belongs to one mailbox. You can’t interchange them.

So we sent it to Gaines Manufacturing Co. saying, “Just confirm,” which we expected them to do. But instead they called us back and said, “No, this is not our pedestal, this is not our mailbox, and we know [whose] it is. It’s another rival company that makes cheaper models.” 

And they were able to refer us to the Solar Group manufacturing company, where we confirmed from them that indeed it was their pedestal. 

And if you can go to the next slide. [Slide displayed] This is the Gaines mailbox that the Kealohas and HPD claimed was on that pedestal. When you can see it’s a two-tone mailbox with a particular shape of a roof, with a gray flag. 

If you can go to the next picture. [Next slide displayed]

Now this is the mailbox that was actually in front of the Kealoha residence. This is the Solar Group mailbox. These are actually photographs, a compilation of photographs from family photographs that we obtained.

We also went on Google Maps because you can go back by year. You can zoom in to the Kealoha residence from 2013. And this is the mailbox that you actually see in front of the Kealoha residence.

So we were able to confirm not only from the witnesses from the mailbox companies, but from photographs, that they had lied about the make, model and value of the mailbox in order to make it a felony crime. And that was our first big red flag.

Akina: Then there were other indicators of your client’s innocence that you came across. What were they?

Silvert: Yeah. In the book, I walk you through every police report, because every police report that we were given was either a lie or omitted facts or falsified evidence outright or altered evidence. I walk you through, in the book, how that was done and what we uncovered. 

But in giving you the biggest red flag from the book, is that Officer Silva of CIU — the intelligence unit from HPD that was specialized in this case — an officer [who] went to recover the video that you saw, and Katherine Kealohala reported the crime on June 22, at 1:29 p.m. to 911. She called 911, just like you and I would, to report a crime.

And she made an affidavit, and it was all reported by the 911 officers. But Officer Silva from CIU had actually gone to the house and retrieved the hard drive. Had retrieved the evidence of the video. 

But his report said he had retrieved the evidence at 8:59 in the morning, more than four and a half hours before Katherine called 911. How do you retrieve evidence before a crime is reported? 

So that was a second red flag that really told us that something was up.

If we can go to the next slide.

After this one, well, that’s the comparison of the two. I’m sorry, go back to that for a second, just so viewers can see the mailbox on the left is the Solar Group. That’s the one that was actually in front of the Kealoha residence. The one on the right is the one they claimed — and HPD claimed — was in front of the Kealoha residence. You can see clearly they’re different. 

If you can go to the next slide. [next slide displayed]

So this is Katherine’s actual and written affidavit to the 911 officer; she signed it at the bottom under oath. And you can play detective yourself. If you can see it on your screen, you can see the arrow that goes to the right, that she says is $380. But I want you to look at the 8 under 380 and then look at the 8 that is in the 18 inches on the line above to the left. They’re different. So that 8, that says 380 was altered.

Why? Because remember, over $300 is a felony, not $300. I think she had written 300, and they put a snowman zero to make it 380 to have to be over 300. 

Now if we can go to the next slide for one second.

This is Officer Silva’s report. And here you can see that the crime is reported at 1300 hours, but he writes on the left that he retrieved the evidence at 8:59. 

So as a defense attorney, when I’m looking at police reports, these are the kind of nitpicky, small details that I’m looking for — inconsistencies in the report. And we found that every single report had inconsistencies — significant inconsistencies — that were wrong.

Akina: Well, in addition to the inconsistencies, you also had a tough time getting ahold of records. Talk to us a little bit about that, particularly records from the HPD.

Silvert: Right. The process in federal court to get a subpoena — because if I go to HPD and I asked for records, they’re not going to give it to me —  I have to get a subpoena. 

So the process in federal court is, I actually file a document under seal so no one sees it but the judge. And I ask the judge permission to get a document, to subpoena a document, and the court has to first approve it. I can’t just issue my own subpoena.

So when the court approves it and I issue a subpoena to HPD, it’s actually a federal judge’s subpoena. It’s not my subpoena. 

We had subpoenaed a whole bunch of records, different kinds of records, from HPD. We do this routinely in cases. And in this case, initially, HPD complied. But then what they started to do was redact the reports we got, which means they blacked out information on the reports, which you’re not allowed to do.

Secondly, we wanted an affidavit from the custodian of records saying that they did a search, and these were all the records, because we knew they were not turning records over to us or that records hadn’t been generated that were supposed to be prepared. 

So we wanted an affidavit from the custodian of records saying, “These are all the records.” 

Well, at first he did it, but then when he realized what we were doing, he stopped doing it, and said, “Well, there are three custodians of records at HPD. You have to subpoena everybody, and I’m only going to respond for my department.”

We had to litigate all of these issues in front of the judge, and we won all of these issues, forcing HPD to comply with our subpoenas without redaction, without multiple custodians of records. 

And even then, we were appealed to the 9th Circuit by Katherine because we were subpoenaing her medical records and her employment records. And she took us all the way to the 9th Circuit trying to fight us.

So we issued 26 subpoenas for documents — which is the most I’ve ever issued in a case — and HPD and Katherine fought us on almost all of them. But we mostly won all of those battles. All of these hearings took place under seal, in secret. So now the information is available to the public under [the] Freedom of Information [Act]. But at the time, it was all hidden from the public.

Akina: Well, the mystery goes deeper. You write in your book that there’s, quote, “secretive black ops unit within the Honolulu Police Dept.” end of quote. Now this gives me Tom Clancy-like feelings reading that. And I’m waiting for the movie to come out. 

But can you explain a bit about this black ops unit? What exactly is it? What did it do? And is it standard procedure?

Silvert: So the Criminal Investigation Unit, the intelligence unit — CIU — is a unit within HPD, which is supposed to do these very top-secret investigations of high crimes — you know, mafioso, those kinds of things, gangs. Bbut it’s a unit that does not write reports. Their activities are completely unknown. The members are chosen specifically by the chief of police and are responsible only to the chief of police.

So CIU would go out and do things, and even other police officers in other units wouldn’t report in their reports if CIU was involved. Their activities were kept secret. 

Since there was a long history, you can go back and find newspaper articles. CIU had been involved in a number of corruption issues before, because of their activities. After this case was over, and all the officers charged in this case were from the CIU division.

So it wasn’t just the Kealohas who were charged; there were a number of officers in the CIU who were also charged. Since this case broke, the CIU has been first renamed — I don’t know what that does other than paint the pig a different color — but it’s kind of been disbanded or reorganized. It’s not solely picked at the behest of the chief of police. There is now supervision. They do write reports. 

So some of the problems with this kind of unit in HPD have been addressed. I don’t know if it’s fully been addressed, but it was one of those units that you couldn’t believe in a domestic police force that such a thing existed.

Akina: Well, fast forward. The Kealohas did not do well in their respective jury trials and they are now behind bars. Do you believe justice has been served?

Silvert: I do. I mean, many people think that their sentences should have been longer, and in some regards, that’s true, because I represented a lot of people who were first-time offenders, minor drug offenses, and they got 10 years or 20 years in jail for their offenses. 

And yet some people who try to undermine the system and use their power of law enforcement in the exact opposite of what they’re sworn to do, you would think that would warrant a very harsh sentence.

But for me, as a public defender, they did get harsh sentences even though it could have been more. So I’m satisfied that justice was served in that respect. 

Now, where justice has not been served is Florence Puana, who was Gerard Puana’s mother, who was the grandmother of Katherine Kealoha.

Katherine stole over $200,000 from Florence and Gerard. Florence had to sell a house because of what happened and what Katherine did. She lost her house, which was her only inheritance for her family. That has never been made whole. 

Even though the Kealohas were convicted and they have to pay restitution, they have no money. So they’re still out all of that money, and so in that sense, justice has not been served.

Akina: Well, let’s talk a little more generally now. Last month I had the opportunity to interview professor Randall Roth, whom you know, co-author of Broken Trust and also an expert on crime in our community, on corruption in particular. He has a pretty dismal view about the extent of corruption in Honolulu and throughout the state of Hawaii, and feels that it is very extensive. What are your thoughts about that?

Silvert: Well, I grew up on the East Coast, in cities like New York and Philadelphia. You know, you talk about corruption, we’re talking substantial corruption in those cities. I don’t think Hawaii’s worse. I don’t think it’s better, I don’t think it’s worse. 

But we have some unique problems here that other places don’t. We don’t have a lot of whistleblowers in Hawaii, and there’s a reason for that.

You know, if you’re in Philadelphia, and you’re a whistleblower, and you come forward, you can leave Philadelphia. You can move your family and relocate them to another part of the state, or to another state. You can keep your job most of the time. You can keep your friends and family. 

In Hawaii if you’re a whistleblower, you’re going to leave the state. You’re going to have to uproot your immediate family, you’re going to lose your extended family, you’re going to lose your job, you’re going to lose the state you may have been born and raised in. So we don’t have a lot of whistleblowers in Hawaii.

None of this stuff took place in secret. There are a lot of people who knew what happened, and if we talk about the old Bishop Estate, “Broken Trust” case, there are a lot of people who knew what happened and no one came forward. That’s part of the problem. 

The other problem we have is as a one-party state — and I’m a Democrat, so I’m OK with a one-party state, except for this: With a one-party state, you don’t have checks and balances.

And if the Democratic Party won’t police itself, then you have a problem. Because those people who are in law enforcement, or at the state attorney general’s office, or at the prosecutor’s office, who would bring these types of corruption cases, they got to worry about their future. Because the people they’re going to be charging are mostly going to be part of the Democratic Party or the bigger organization of the Democratic Party, and that may impact their future as a lawyer. 

You know, lawyers want to become judges, they want to move up in a partnership. That’s problematic if you start charging people in corruption who end up being the status quo, the power elite. So we do have some unique problems in Hawaii that we have to deal with.

Akina: Well, you mentioned that there are very few whistleblowers in Hawaii and you speak of a culture in which people simply don’t want to stand up. And that may very well be the environment, which breeds the kind of corruption we have, where everybody seems to know about it until finally something breaks, and we find that there’s been a grand jury trial and so forth. 

What can be done? Let’s talk about the solution. What can citizens who really care about getting rid of corruption — as well as public officials — do?

Silvert: Well, one thing I’ve been really pushing for is there were all these oversight commissions — you know, the police commission, the ethics commission and ODC, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel that oversees lawyers — who should have been involved in this case, who should have stepped in and should have tried to prevent what was happening from happening, or at least stop it from getting worse. 

And they all failed. Every one of those public oversight commissions failed. 

And the problem is nothing has been done by them since this case broke to correct their inaction.

And the first thing you have to do is examine why did you fail to do your job? What happened? Once you’ve identified the failure, then you can correct it. 

You know, when a bridge falls down, engineers go out, they look at what happened and why it happened, and they make corrections. In Hawaii, our institutions have absolutely refused to look inside and conduct any internal investigation of themselves, so they can correct their inaction.

So that has to be done at all levels to determine what needs to be done to take corrective action, because you can’t just take corrective action when you don’t know what happened wrong in the first place. 

And the system — the establishment — has been really powerful in stopping that from happening. So we need the public to come in and say, “No, we need this done, we want to know what happened.”

One of the big problems with all of these commissions is that it’s the mayor who appoints all the commissioners and the mayor alone, and there is no criteria. Other states around the country, the people who appoint the commissioners, it’s broken up between City Council, the mayor, there’s a freelance person, and there are criteria for who can qualify as a commissioner. 

We have to do that; If we don’t do that, then what happens is what happened to Loretta Sheehan of the [Honolulu] Police Commission, and why I won’t be part of one of these commissions.

The mayor appoints one or two rabble-rousers like Loretta Sheehan or Judge [Steven] Levinson, to be on the commission. It looks good, everybody’s happy. But you’re only two of seven or one of seven. Your voice is going to be drowned out when it comes to the major issues. 

And if as long as that procedure keeps going on where the mayor gets to appoint — [the Honolulu] City Council of course approves, but they approve everybody unless there’s something drastically wrong with the person — as long as that’s the way commissioners are appointed, we’re never going to have change. We’re not going to have introspection and we’re never going to solve this problem so it doesn’t happen again. Because right now, there’s absolutely nothing preventing this from happening again.

Akina: On one level, that’s a dismal thought. But on the other hand, you’ve told us exactly what we need to do and what we need to fix. And I hope that our public officials are listening and hope that many in the public get to review this video and read your book. Alexander, thank you so much for your years of service to our county and our state, and thank you for being on the program today.

Alexander: Thanks for having me.

Akina: Well everyone, you heard it. My guest today is Alexander Silvert, and I hope you get to read his book “The Mailbox Conspiracy: The Inside Story of the Greatest Corruption Case in Hawaii History.” I hope we can start doing something about this. 

My name is Keli’i Akina on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network, saying “Aloha” to you until next week.

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