Honolulu voters get to choose a new prosecutor this year, and HPR will be profiling the major candidates running for the office ahead of the August 8th primary. Today, we talk with former deputy prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer Megan Kau.
Megan Kau's legal career started in 2006 when Peter Carlisle, former Honolulu prosecutor and mayor, hired her as a deputy prosecuting attorney. Kau was then promoted to the department's Career Criminal Division, where she prosecuted murders, sex assaults, and other violent crimes.
But Kau left the office in 2010, after Keith Kaneshiro became the city's prosecuting attorney.
"He brought in Katherine Kealoha, who was my supervisor at the time," she said. "I was trying to tell people that she was doing things that were unethical and untruthful, but nobody was listening to me. And it was because I was a line deputy, and she was a supervisor."
After leaving the prosecutor's office, Kau wanted to continue to sharpen her legal skills and try big cases, but she says her options were limited. She decided to work in private civil law firms before opening her own practice, where she gained experience as a criminal defense lawyer.
Kau says she was approached by a group of renowned lawyers in 2015 who were looking for someone to run against Kaneshiro. She says before she accepted their endorsement, she wanted to be transparent about her past.
"The first thing was that I was homeless at age 15. Because I was homeless, I worked in a lot of bars. And there are records of me working in bars, and people knew I worked in bars," she said.
The second thing she disclosed was that she was a victim of domestic violence, which caused her to become homeless a second time. Kau says she had to again work in local bars to make ends meet.
Ultimately, the group withdrew its endorsement, and Kau decided not to run against Kaneshiro in the 2016 election.
Despite her past, she decided to run for the position this time because of the Kealoha corruption scandal.
"It was very difficult for me to sit back and watch that office, basically, burn up in flames," she said. "I have a loyalty to that office -- that's where I began my legal career, that's where I learned my trial skills."
Kau said it was also difficult for her to watch the deputies and department staff get trampled on by the administration.
Transparency and restoring public trust in the office are priorities for Kau. She says one way is to continue answering every question the public and media has. And if elected, she would encourage deputy prosecutors to do the same.
Another action she would take, if elected, is to to seek the resignation of anyone who helped Katherine Kealoha. She says there are a select few in the office that knew of Kealoha's activities. She added that a majority of the department's staff are good, hard-working people who are loyal to the city.
But Kau believes any change in the department will take some time.
"Anyone that goes in there is going to have to be very transparent. They're going to have to answer to the public, and answer people's questions."
Kau's priorities are centered around staff training, and effective treatments for drug addiction and mental health. Both are challenges for the department that she says she can help address.
"They have very skilled, intelligent, and hard-working deputies there. But they lack direction and they lack training," she said.
"I will lead by example, because I have more [trial] experience than all of the candidates put together in the past 10 years. I'm very active in trials and litigation. But I will implement very good training sessions for the deputies."
Kau says she is committed to working with the community, legislators and other decision makers to create better policies to treat defendants with drug addiction and mental health issues.
Kau doesn't believe it's the prosecutor's job to take up reforms of the criminal justice system. She says it's the prosecutor's job "is to objectively apply the criminal laws that exist" -- whatever his or her personal beliefs may be. But she does believe that justice needs to keep up with the times.
"Our society has changed, rules have changed, expectations have changed," she said. "So you need a prosecutor that understands those changes to effectively prosecute."
She adds: "A prosecutor cannot pick and choose which laws to enforce. And pick and choose which people to enforce them against . . . that leads to corruption."
However, Kau says a prosecutor can act as a role model for the community, and advise legislators on changing the laws.
Like some of her opponents, Kau believes the next prosecutor should have experience as a deputy prosecutor.
"If you don't have that experience, there is no way you're going to be able to run an office of 300 people," Kau said. "There are several different divisions -- they are run the way they are for a reason."
She notes there is a learning curve that deputy prosecutors go through, and there is no time for the next prosecutor to learn how the office works and how to be a deputy prosecutor.
Kau says historically not a lot of people pay attention to or vote in the prosecutor's race. She believes it's because a majority of residents haven't been involved with the justice system.
But Kau asks voters to study each candidate for prosecutor because, she says, the department holds more power than the mayor of Honolulu.
"Crime affects everyone," she said. "If for some reason you become a victim after the prosecutor is elected, that's when you realize 'Oh, shucks, I should have paid a little more attention to this race.' Because depending on who the prosecutor is, you're either treated well, or you're not treated well. Your case is either brought to justice or not brought to justice.
"This office is going to affect our community's safety for the next four to eight years. And it will make a very big difference."
To read more about about those running for city prosecuting attorney, go to HPR's candidate page.