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Tuesday, May 14, 2024
Final witness testifies as former prosecutor’s corruption trial draws to a close in Hawaii
By Court House News @ 2:22 PM :: 1081 Views :: Honolulu County, Ethics, Law Enforcement

Final witness testifies as former prosecutor’s corruption trial draws to a close in Hawaii

Prosecutors say businessman Dennis Mitsunaga used hefty campaign contributions to exert influence over Hawaii's political landscape.

by Keya Rivera, Courthouse News, May 14, 2024

HONOLULU (CN) — The trial of former Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, businessman Dennis Mitsunaga and codefendants, all accused of a conspiracy to commit fraud and bribery, entered its final stretch as the last witness, a forensic analyst, took the stand.

His testimony Monday rounds out the two-month-long federal trial against Kaneshiro, Honolulu's longest-serving former city prosecutor; Mitsunaga, the former head of Mitsunaga & Associates; and several of Mitsunaga's employees. Mitsunaga is accused of orchestrating a bribery scheme where he funneled close to $50,000 to Kaneshiro to pursue a baseless case against a former employee, Laurel Mau.

The high-profile case delves into charges of corruption and abuse of power within the city's legal system. U.S. Senior District Judge Timothy Burgess is hearing the case, sitting in from Alaska after the abrupt recusal of U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright in January 2024, just months before trial was slated to begin.

The 2022 indictment in the bribery case extended beyond Mitsunaga and Kaneshiro. Mitsunaga's employees Terri Ann Otani, Aaron Fujii, and Chad McDonald — as well as former firm attorney Sheri Tanaka, who was added in a superseding indictment — were also charged.

Tanaka is being separately investigated for reportedly ordering hits against the previous federal judge in the case, and lead prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat. Tanaka was released on bail.

Mitsunaga remains in the custody of U.S. Marshals after he was arrested in April in connection with witness tampering charges brought against him. According to authorities, Mitsunaga, 82, tried to influence the testimony of his friend Rudy Alivado, a retired Honolulu police officer, in an attempt to bolster his case.

The defense, led by Nina Marino of Kaplan Marino Law in Los Angeles, presented charts and analysis aiming to demonstrate that Mitsunaga & Associates had a practice of making political contributions to various local politicians, not only Kaneshiro.

According to Marino, only a small portion of the total $450,000 in donations to Kaneshiro while he served as prosecutor came from Mitsunaga's firm. The defendants argue that this breakdown undermines claims of their role in a bribery scheme.

Marino asked forensic analyst Duane Seabolt about the breakdown.

"Based on that analysis, the Mitsunaga & Associates group's percentage of donations is approximately 11% of that $450,000?" Marino asked. Seabolt confirmed that according to his analysis, the statistics presented on the pie chart were accurate.

Seabolt said that the data used in his analysis came directly from the Campaign Spending Commission website. He said that Mitsunaga & Associates also made donations to Megan Kau, a potential prosecuting attorney candidate, between February 2021 and June 2022.

During cross-examination, special attorney for the U.S. Andrew Chiang said Seabolt's analysis was skewed to show a low percentage of total contributions, because it included every candidate and periods when Kaneshiro didn't receive any donations. Chiang showed a chart with findings that Mitsunaga & Associates' donations were closer to 40% of Kaneshiro's total.

“Why did you contribute an additional eight years of data that the MAI group didn’t contribute to Kaneshiro?” Chiang asked. “This analysis is larger because it focuses on the time period where the MAI group donated to Kaneshiro.”

Chiang said Mitsunaga made substantial political contributions, emphasizing the extent of his influence in Hawaii's political arena.

The court has rejected Mitsunaga's requests for pretrial release from custody.

With closing arguments scheduled for Tuesday, defense attorney Thomas Otake of Alapa and Otake proposed a three-hour time limit on closing statements, which Burgess denied. 

“The U.S. is responding to six different closing arguments,” Burgess said. “I won’t tie their hands or give them a limit on how much time they can speak.”

Proceedings are scheduled at the federal courthouse in Honolulu Tuesday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and are expected to continue through the end of the week.



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