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Victim of bribery scheme testifies in Hawaii prosecutor corruption case
By Court House News @ 5:31 AM :: 1710 Views :: Honolulu County, Ethics, Law Enforcement

Victim of bribery scheme testifies in Hawaii prosecutor corruption case

A former Honolulu prosecutor is accused of accepting nearly $50,000 from a local engineering firm to go after a former employee with criminal charges.

by Keya Rivera, Court House News, April 15, 2024

HONOLULU (CN) — A sprawling corruption case involving a former Honolulu prosecutor ramped up in federal court in Hawaii Monday, with a mounting list of misconduct including bribery, conspiracy and fraud, growing alongside the backdrop of an entire state of recused federal judges and even accusations of ordering hits on the opposition.

Former Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro is on trial alongside five members of an engineering firm that prosecutors say bribed Kaneshiro with thousands of dollars in campaign donations to bring criminal charges against former employee Laurel Mau.

Mau, an architect, took to the stand Monday morning for the fourth time since trial began in early April in federal court in Honolulu to recount her abrupt firing in 2011, the sexual harassment she endured during her employment and the civil lawsuit she filed against the company. Subsequent theft charges against Mau and her firing are at the heart of the government's case against Kaneshiro and her former employer Mitsunaga & Associates.

Federal prosecutors claim that Dennis Mitsunaga and his associates orchestrated nearly $50,000 in campaign contributions to Kaneshiro, in what they say was an effort to prompt Kaneshiro into bringing the unfounded criminal charges against Mau in 2014. Kaneshiro's criminal case against Mau was dismissed in 2017.

Mitsunaga employees Terri Ann Otani, Aaron Fujii and Chad McDonald — along with former firm attorney Sheri Tanaka, who now faces even more explosive claims of trying to silence witnesses — were indicted with Mitsunaga and Kaneshiro in 2022.

All the defendants have pleaded not guilty. 

Before U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess — 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 — Mau stated that she had a pleasant, cordial relationship with Dennis Mitsunaga prior to her unexpected termination.

Mau noted that she had received Christmas bonuses from her former employer and even exchanged of Christmas cards — several of which were presented as evidence by Mitsunaga's legal counsel.

"They were like my family," she said about Mitsunaga and Associates." I really thought of them like my family."

Their relationship began to sour when Mau spoke up about an inappropriate email sent to her from her supervisor, Steven Wong, that contained two images of her face photoshopped onto a model wearing lingerie and another model with her breasts exposed. 

It was revealed that Wong had been demoted and transferred to a different office. Following rigorous questioning by prosecutors, Mau acknowledged that she was satisfied with how the situation had been addressed.

Mau said the harassment at Mitsunaga & Associates lasted for years, and claims Mitsunaga tried to bribe her by offering "perks" like a new cell phone, gas cards, and a paid parking spot at the office. 

"I believe I was fired in retaliation for speaking up against sexual harassment," Mau said.

With conditions at the company failing to improve, Mau said she requested a raise, seeking a higher salary and better benefits. While her requests were granted, Mau was also given a letter by Mitsunaga critiquing her job performance.

Mau testified that she refuted the critiques in her own letter which she dropped off at her boss's office, only to return from lunch to find company executive and co-defendant Fujii waiting to inform her of her termination. As Mau packed up over a decade's worth of work, she said Monday her coworkers rushed her exit and recorded the incident, subjecting her to more harassment.

Mitsunaga maintains that the campaign donations to Kaneshiro were entirely legal. They have also claimed that Mau, as a former employee, stole from Mitsunaga & Associates by using the firm's name, time and resources for unauthorized side jobs.

Mau says she was never informed it was against company policy to do side jobs and that she even did side jobs for Mitsunaga and his family. 

Mau was on the stand for hours on Monday, declining to answer most of the questions posed in cross-examination evasively with variations of “I can’t remember” and “I don’t know”. 

The growing slew of dramatic accusations against the former prosecutor and the engineering firm don't end with Mau.

Tanaka, Mitsunaga & Associates' former attorney, is being separately investigated for reportedly ordering hits against Seabright, the previous federal judge on the case, and lead prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat. Thought Seabright recused himself from the case, Wheat pressed on with the trial, with the government now accusing the defendants on Sunday of leaking grand jury testimony to a third party and a witness in an emergency motion to the court.

Prosecutors are also pushing to include evidence that Dennis Mitsunaga and his associates made campaign contributions to try and buy off numerous politicians, not just Kaneshiro. Prosecutors say this demonstrates Mitsunaga's purported pattern of using bundled political contributions to try to sway powerful political figures across the local Hawaii government.

The trial is set to reconvene Tuesday morning with Mau slated to retake the stand. Burgess will also hear from the government on their emergency motion for enforcement of the protective order on grand jury testimony.

 

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