Hawaii, it’s a struggle to love you. I feel like I’m dating a girl that’s way out of my league who cheats on me constantly. I love you unconditionally, I don’t ask questions, and I believe everything you say because you’re just so damn good to look at. You promise that things will get better, that you’ll change. Housing will become affordable, the rail will be completed, there will be more business opportunities, your state officials will stop the corruption and tap-dancing on the law, and even though I know in the back of my mind these are lies, I believe you. I put up with your shit because of how beautiful you are. But after 4 years, I’m finally fed up. Under all that beauty there’s a real ugliness.
It’s not that I hate you, it’s just hard to survive here. For the first 2 years, I was convinced I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you. The islands are awe-inspiring in their beauty and the people are some of the kindest and most hospitable I have ever met in my life. There’s also camaraderie in the struggle that bonds us all together. Everybody is compromising in one way or another, whether it be living in a small, A/C-less apartment because of the rent and house prices, working for way less money than we could be making on the mainland, or exclusively buying Kirkland brand products. Despite these issues, I fell in love with the Aloha spirit for countless reasons and it helped me become a better person.
I’ve met best friends that I’ll have until I die (or they die). But they keep leaving, and as the ranks thin, I’m starting to focus too much on your problems. They were minor annoyances at first, now they’re glaring issues that are impossible to ignore.
I will admit some of this is because I chose to live on a rock 5,000 miles away from civilization. I get that. Some hardships come with the territory. But a lot of the problems we face in Hawaii, at least in my opinion, could be fixed or at least remedied somewhat. Unfortunately, a lot of the people we elected to fix these problems are much more interested in lining their pockets and handing out favors than helping the people of Hawaii thrive.
Loyalty and Trust over everything
The Hawaii state government just released a dashboard that tracks their progress for the year and surprise, surprise, they’re exceeding all of their goals! Good news, right? Maybe if they were ambitious goals, but they set the bar embarrassingly low so they could sandbag the numbers and go “progress!” It’s not surprising, after the year they’ve had they are desperately trying to regain some public trust.
One of the first things I did here was go to the Kapalama DMV (AKA the worst place on Earth) to get my Hawaii state drivers license. I had to go back 3 times, and each time I was told something different. It was infuriating because I spent 10 collective hours in the DMV but it taught me my first lesson about how things work here: there are a lot of rules, nobody knows exactly what they are, and they are enforced selectively depending on who you are.
I know several people who have started businesses here, and they have all emphasized that one of the keys to success is how well connected you are in the local community and who you know in the Hawaii state government. The lines between friends and associates are constantly blurred, and how deep your roots are in the local community usually correlates with your success. Hawaii is one of the most regulated states in America when it comes to business which makes it extremely difficult to turn a profit and pay decent wages unless you know how to skirt regulations or ease your tax burden. It’s not a question of if you play the system, it’s a question of “how much?”. And in order to do that, you need strategic relationships built around trust.
And not only trust, loyalty is equally important. When I first started working in Honolulu, it took a lot of adjusting. I pivoted my career to marketing which means working with a lot of different vendors. And when those vendors missed deadlines or delivered shitty work, I would suggest we hire new vendors but I quickly found out that was a big no-no. Despite my constant questioning I never got a straight answer as to why other than “this is a small island” and “we need to maintain this relationship”. That didn’t make sense to me. If they’re not good at their job, why keep paying them? I couldn’t comprehend relationships being more important than performance, especially in business.
When I left that job my company acted like I was stabbing them in the back. Even though they refused to match my new salary. They thought we were Ohana and leaving for money was a betrayal. Shit, they even called my new job to complain about “poaching” me even though I was hilariously underpaid and applied to the job myself. If you take care of me, I’ll take care of you, and if you cross me, you are dead to me. The work culture is antiquated and also reflective of how things function throughout the state.
This recent wave of scandals prove corruption isn’t a rarity in Hawaii, it’s the norm. But are these a few corrupt outliers or is this how things have always been?
Which brings me to the corrupt local government, specifically power couple and habitual lawbreakers Katherine and Louis Kealoha. I’ll briefly overview their laundry list of crimes and associated cover-ups but you can read about it in exhaustive detail here and read the full court filing here.
- Katherine and her physician brother Richard Puana teamed up to sell Oxycontin and Xanax across the islands. They were doing this unnoticed for 6 years.
- They used the profits from the drug sales to buy and presumably sell cocaine.
- When the Honolulu Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit discovered this, instead of blowing the whistle they alerted Katherine and Louis and gave them time to hide evidence.
- While she was dealing drugs across the island, Katherine was also banging a local fireman named Jesse Ebersole and using taxpayer/stolen trust money to finance their romantic getaways and pay off his car note.
He must have really wanted that car
They were breaking every law imaginable because who was going to hold them accountable? Themselves? They had the keys to the kingdom. And they had enough good will and clout built up with local city officials to sweep it all under the rug.
In addition, Katherine was in charge of managing her family and family friends’ trusts (the Puanas and the Taitos) which she promptly drained to finance her lavish lifestyle. When this destroyed their credit, she opened more than 30 accounts and lied on a bunch of loan applications to keep the party going. When the Puanas were understandably like, “What the fuck?” Katherine and Louis framed Gerard Puana for stealing their mailbox. The subsequent trial was the start of their downfall. Messing with the mail is a Federal crime, and once the Feds got involved their house of cards started to crumble.
Lastly, Katherine constantly attempted to cover up her mistakes by emailing Hawaii News Now as an “informant” with bogus information from her co-workers’ email addresses. I add these details not to emphasize what an awful person she is, that’s abundantly clear, but to show just how little she was worried about being caught. She thought she was untouchable.
This isn’t a few rogue cops or one corrupt city official, this is the Chief of Police and Deputy Prosecutor of Honolulu. The leaders we trust to run our public institutions and keep us safe.
And this wasn’t two people acting alone, Keith Kaneshiro (Honolulu’s head prosecutor) is now under investigation for lies stemming from the Katherine Kealoha debacle. He was caught because he helped Katherine dismiss a speeding ticket for her electrician. Yes, they both risked their careers and freedom to save her fucking electrician $200 and a few points on his license. They’re prosecutors, they know exactly how illegal it is and they still did it. It’s beyond brazen.
At least that electricians’ insurance premiums didn’t go up. That’d be the real crime.
Two of Kaneshiro’s cohorts, deputies Chasid Sapolu and Janice Futa, are also being investigated for helping Keith cover up his misdeeds and intimidating witnesses. The obvious trail of evidence and clumsy cover-ups these geniuses left behind is staggering. For people whose entire job consists of knowing and enforcing the law, they’re terrible at circumventing it. They thought they could circle the wagons and tell a few lies like they usually do and the Federal government would go, “we’ll just take your word for it”. The problem is, these investigators aren’t from Hawaii, and they don’t care about how connected you are in the local community.
How deep does it go?
As far-reaching as the Kealoha case is, it’s just the beginning. Remember the Honolulu Rail? I briefly touched on what a boondoggle this project has become when I was complaining about traffic. I’m a strong believer in “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, and at first, all of the construction issues seemed to point to a government that just wasn’t designed to handle a project of this magnitude. But, yet again, it goes much deeper than pure incompetence.
Projected completion date: 3005
This week, the Federal government subpoenaed 30,000 pages of documents, then hit them with a second subpoena, and then a third as part of a criminal probe into rail construction operations. If you’re unaware of just how bad it’s gotten, the project has ballooned from $5.1B to more than $9B and it’s completion has been pushed back to 2025 (it was supposed to be working already).
The 18 consultants they hired to fix things who have done absolutely nothing so far have been paid an average of $500,000 in yearly salaries. Also, many of the officials on the project have been bribed by construction companies to secure some of the contracts. In addition, a lot of the real estate they purchased to build the rail was bought suspiciously over market value. And much of the documentation and communications that would absolve city officials of any wrongdoing is conveniently missing or being withheld. This is going to get much, much worse and may become another “bridge to nowhere”
Footage of HART officials
We shouldn’t be asking why the Kealohas or the HART officials would commit these crimes, we should be asking why they thought they could get away with it so easily. How did this happen for so long undetected? Why did it take the Feds to put a stop to it? Is there any oversight in the Hawaii state government?
Short answer? It’s simply how business is done in Hawaii. The Kealohas were successful public leaders that were trusted and respected throughout the community. If Katherine’s shockingly retarded move to get her electrician off his speeding ticket tells us anything, it’s that they valued loyalty over everything, even their freedom. Katherine was still trying to protect her people even when she knew she was fucked. It’s the only understandable and somewhat admirable thing about her.
The Federal government shined a spotlight on how the system works in Hawaii and what they’re finding ain’t pretty. Rampant corruption that reaches every corner of the state government. Nobody is as corrupt as the Kealohas, but they’re all complicit in one way or another. It’s the only way this would have gone “unnoticed” for years and years. Not all of it is nefarious, many people are just trying to make a little bit more money to survive here or protect their work Ohana. Very few people in the government are actively trying to hurt the people of Hawaii, but they still do through their collective actions.
At what point is it too much? When are we going to be fed up? And even if we do get fed up, is it fixable?
The Kealohas and their network of conspirators will be brought to justice. The Feds aren’t the type of people to just “let things go” as Donald Trump is currently finding out. But who really loses in this scenario? Us. We’re stuck with decades of higher taxes to pay for a rail that may never be completed and the potential of losing billions in Federal funding because the people in charge can’t be trusted with it.
What’s even worse is it shakes the public’s trust in the government. It’s not that people got in trouble it’s who got in trouble. These were people elected to leadership positions, not a few rogue cops that took bribes then got caught. You’d think people would be angry, protesting, calling for their heads. People are angry, but there’s a widespread apathy about issues like this in Hawaii. Everybody feels powerless to fix anything when this has been the norm forever.
For a state government that loves to impose rules, they sure hate following them. Hawaiian congressmen including Brian Schatz, Mazie Hirono, and Tulsi Gabbard love to bash Donald Trump for being a corrupt asshole that lacks morals or leadership while failing to address what’s happening in their own backyard. They’d rather pass some national headline-grabbing legislation than actually fix the systemic corruption that pervades every corner of Hawaii’s political system.
And what about Mayor Caldwell? Governor Ige? The men elected again and again that continually turn a blind eye to these issues. When given the choice between making the hard decisions that will actually help Hawaii in the long run or maintaining a corrupt system to get re-elected, they always choose re-election. They are beholden to a system they no longer control. Being swept along like twigs in a river, unable and unwilling to take a stand. We need leaders who can bring Hawaii into the future, not keep it in the past.
Maybe the Federal investigations will force people to action, clean house for us and get rid of the worst of the worst. But the culture will remain. It’s going to take a leader, or a group of leaders, to stand up to the accepted norms, piss off the entrenched politicians and do what’s best for the people at the cost of their careers. Or maybe this is just “how business is done here” and people like the Kealohas are going to pop up every once in a while because it’s so easy to take advantage. Either way, the people that live here deserve better, and they deserve leaders who are going to use the Aloha spirit for good, not evil.
Part 2: “Paradise Tax” coming soon.