HILO — A Big Island firefighter accused of lying to a federal grand jury about his relationship with a Honolulu deputy prosecutor in the fraud and corruption case against her and her husband, the former Honolulu police chief, was put on paid leave.
Hawaii Fire Chief Darren Rosario said Tuesday in a tersely worded statement that Battalion Chief Jesse Ebersole “was directly involved with the saving of many lives” during his 25-year career with the department.
The 49-year-old Ebersole was charged Monday in U.S. District Court in Honolulu with conspiracy to obstruct, a penalty punishable by up to five years imprisonment. Authorities claim he lied to a federal grand jury about his relationship with Honolulu Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, according to a document filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
The 47-year-old Kealoha and her husband, former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, are awaiting federal trials on bank fraud and corruption allegations.
“As this incident involves federal charges and an open investigation, there will be no further comment from my office,” Rosario said.
Ebersole was promoted April 1 to battalion chief of the department’s Emergency Medical Services Bureau.
Ebersole and Kealoha met in 2009, the document suggests, when both were selected for the Pacific Century Fellows Program. The program, developed by Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Authority CEO and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, has the objective, according to the program’s website, “to develop leaders with a greater awareness and sensitivity to the people and institutions of Hawaii.”
The charging document claims Ebersole and Katherine Kealoha “maintained an intimate personal relationship” and that Kealoha used stolen money to fly Ebersole from Hilo to Honolulu and put him up in hotels. While the dates of the alleged affair aren’t specified, the document alleges Kealoha paid travel expenses for Ebersole between November 2009 and March 2013.
Katherine Kealoha spent more than $20,000 on the secret relationship with funds stolen from her grandmother, Florence Puana, and from a second mortgage she and her husband fraudulently obtained, according to the document.
Ebersole allegedly testified in April 2017 that he and Kealoha were “just friends.” In October 2017, he purportedly testified that he didn’t have a romantic relationship with her and didn’t know why airline tickets were in his name on Kealoha’s credit card statement.
Katherine Kealoha met with the firefighter before he testified and “would coach Ebersole on how to falsely respond to questions posed to him in the grand jury,” according to the document.
Ebersole was named the Big Island’s Firefighter of the Year in 2012 for his contributions to the department, which included writing grants. The written announcement of Ebersole’s selection noted his grant-writing led to the procurement of $180,000 worth of equipment for the department.
Mayor Harry Kim, who was Ebersole’s varsity football coach at Waiakea High School and who remains Ebersole’s friend, said he first heard about Ebersole’s case and the alleged affair with Katherine Kealoha on Monday.
“This has really bothered me a lot, deeply,” Kim said. “I find myself thinking of him as a friend and not as the mayor.” He also noted Ebersole’s longtime status as “an outstanding county employee.”
According to Kim, early in his first tenure as mayor, he drove to the Central Fire Station in Hilo “because I knew I wasn’t feeling right.” He said Ebersole examined him and drove him to the emergency room of Hilo Medical Center, where Kim suffered his first of six heart attacks.
“You hear those words ‘cardiac arrest’ and you try to make your body relax because tension makes it worse,” Kim recalled. “I’m laying there, and I’m not scared, you know, because you’re confident where you are.
“Then, I feel this contact on the side of my face, because my eyes were closed. It was Jesse. He said, ‘Coach, know that I love you, and please be well.’ Then he leaves because the doctors take over.”
“None of that is to rationalize what he did or did not do,” Kim added.
Kim said he directed the county’s Human Resources Department to coordinate with the Fire Department “to ensure we do what is right by law.”
Ebersole has a court date at 2:30 p.m. Thursday before Chief Judge J. Michael Seabright in Honolulu for a waiver of indictment and to enter a plea, according to court records.
“He’s going to enter a plea,” affirmed Don Wilkerson, Ebersole’s attorney. He declined to elaborate.
“If there’s a waiver of indictment, it’s more likely than not that there’s an agreement” between prosecutors and the defendant, said Hilo criminal defense attorney Brian De Lima. “And more likely than not, the sentencing would be continued into the future in order to determine his degree of cooperation.
“You are given credit for taking responsibility — in other words, for pleading guilty,” De Lima said.
De Lima said that under federal guidelines, the judge has discretion to impose a more lenient sentence “based on the level of cooperation.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.