Honolulu bribery trial won’t be postponed despite an investigation into a threat against a US judge

Feb 28, 2024, 5:10 PM

HONOLULU (AP) — An upcoming bribery trial against Honolulu’s former top prosecutor won’t be delayed despite an ongoing investigation that one of the defendants in the case allegedly threatened the safety of the judge who had been presiding over the case, which prompted his unexpected recusal last month.

The new judge ruled Wednesday there will be only one trial for all six defendants, and it will remain scheduled to begin with jury selection on March 12.

U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright had been presiding over the case since a grand jury indicted former Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro and five others in 2022, alleging that employees of an engineering and architectural firm bribed Kaneshiro with campaign donations in exchange for his prosecution of a former company employee.

They have pleaded not guilty. The indictment alleges that Mitsunaga & Associates employees and an attorney contributed more than $45,000 to Kaneshiro’s reelection campaigns between October 2012 and October 2016.

The former employee targeted with prosecution had been a project architect at Mitsunaga & Associates for 15 years when she was fired without explanation on the same day she expressed disagreement with claims the CEO made against her, court documents say.

Kaneshiro’s office prosecuted the architect, whom court documents identify only as L.J.M., but a judge dismissed the case in 2017 for lack of probable cause.

Without explanation last month, Seabright rescued himself from the case. All other federal judges in Hawaii rescued, and U.S. Senior District Judge Timothy Burgess in Alaska stepped in to take over the case.

According to Burgess’ ruling, on Jan. 24, when Seabright announced his recusal, the government filed a sealed notice that one of the defendants was under investigation for allegations of threatening the safety of the prior judge and a special prosecuting attorney in the case.

One of the defendants, Sheri Tanaka, who had been the firm’s lawyer, later asked for a postponement and to have a separate trial.

One of her defense attorneys, Mark Mermelstein, argued that her defense team hasn’t been able to adequately prepare for trial since her devices were seized as part of the investigation into the alleged threats. Mermelstein also argued she can’t get a fair trial because of a local television news report describing the investigation as a murder-for-hire plot.

The co-defendants also wanted Tanaka separated from the case, but they objected to a delay in the trial date.

No new charges have been filed against Tanaka. A magistrate judge stepping in from California ruled last week that conditions allowing her to remain free on bail in the bribery case will remain unchanged despite a probation officer’s petition saying Tanaka “may pose a danger to any other person or the community.”

Mermelstein sought to have Friday’s bail review hearing closed to the public, but Brian Black, an attorney with the Public First Law Center objected. The Associated Press, joined by other members of the media, also objected. U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins allowed the hearing to continue in open court and gave Mermelstein an opportunity to summarize what a witness would have said behind closed doors about whether Tanaka is a danger.

Tanaka was being extorted by those who threatened her and her family, Mermelstein said in court.

“She believed that bad people were coming for her and her family, and paid money to the extortionists to stop them,” Mermelstein said in a written statement after the hearing. “It appears that an informant told the government that this payment was for something else entirely.”

Tanaka wants Seabright “to know that she did not and would not ever seek to harm him or any other judicial officer or anyone else,” the statement said.

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Honolulu bribery trial won’t be postponed despite an investigation into a threat against a US judge