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Wednesday, May 15, 2024
Closing arguments begin in high-profile Hawaii bribery trial
By Court House News @ 2:40 PM :: 1130 Views :: Honolulu County, Ethics, Law Enforcement

Closing arguments begin in high-profile Hawaii bribery trial

The federal government claims Honolulu businessman Dennis Mitsunaga bribed ex-prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro to help him fabricate a case against a former employee, while the defendants say the campaign donations were politics as usual.

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

HONOLULU (CN) — Prosecutors and defense attorneys began closing arguments Tuesday in the trial of former Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, businessman Dennis Mitsunaga and co-defendants facing accusations of conspiracy to commit fraud and bribery at the U.S. District Court for Hawaii.

U.S. Senior District Judge Timothy Burgess read the jury their instructions before hearing closing arguments from the U.S. in the federal lawsuit against Kaneshiro, Mitsunaga, and employees of Mitsunaga & Associates Terri Otani, Chief Operating Officer Aaron Fujii, President Chad McDonald, and former company attorney Sheri Tanaka. All the defendants have pleaded not guilty.

The federal government says Mitsunaga and his associates conspired to bribe Kaneshiro by engineering a false case against a former employee, Laurel Mau; the prosecutor then received over $45,000 in bribes disguised as campaign contributions for his assistance, according to the government.

“The greed, the money all came from the defendants in this case Dennis Mitsunaga, Terri Otani, Aaron Fujii, Chad McDonald, and Sheri Tanaka — and the power came from Keith Kaneshiro. The story all began when Laurel Mau stood up to Dennis Mitsunaga,” said U.S. Attorney Joseph J.M. Orabona, who opened. 

Mau's termination and the theft charges filed against her lie at the heart of the government's corruption case.

Prosecutors argue that the defense failed to prove Mau stole from the company or to present evidence that she misused Mitsunaga & Associates materials for personal side projects during her work there. She lost a civil trial against the firm. The case against her was dismissed in 2017.

Meanwhile, Mitsunaga is in the U.S. Marshals' custody following an April arrest linked to witness tampering claims. The 82-year-old is accused of attempting to influence testimony from his friend Rudy Alivado, a retired Honolulu police officer, to bolster his case.

The government says Alivado got a free house design from the engineering company in exchange for modifying his testimony to damage Mau and benefit Mitsunaga. The defense countered that the claim proved how Mau engaged in unauthorized side projects.

Earlier in the trial, Alivado testified that he had lied about paying Mau for the work she did for him.

The government presented evidence that Tanaka had either coached Alivado to deliver false testimony in Mau's civil trial or furnished him with transcripts from the trial at Mitsunaga’s behest.

Tanaka faces a second probe by the FBI over reports she ordered hits on U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright, who recused himself from the case in January, and lead prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat. She has been released on bail.

The government outlined how Kaneshiro appointed senior fraud prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto as the enforcement investigator on the Mau case.

On June 18, 2014, Nadamoto submitted a report to Kaneshiro concluding no crime had been committed after extensive interviews and investigation. Orabona, arguing for the U.S., said that Tanaka disagreed with the findings, and Kaneshiro rejected the report, saying of the prosecutor: "He's been paid for it, he's got to push it forward."

In August 2014, Kaneshiro tasked prosecutor Jacob Delaplane with investigating the case, withholding an investigative officer and Nadamoto's previous findings.

“I wasn’t interested in the complete story,” Delaplane testified during the trial.

Rebutting the government's claims nearly point-for-point in closing arguments, Kaneshiro's attorney Birney B. Bervar said in his closing remarks that the prosecutor didn't need money and even returned $3,000 worth of campaign contributions to Mitsunaga.

“You had all these donations, but nothing happened. That doesn’t really sound like a bribe,” said Bervar. 

Bervar also challenged the government's argument about phone records correlating with political donations. He drew attention to the brief phone conversation presented by prosecutors as evidence of a conspiracy.

"How much of a bribery scheme can hatch in one minute and eight seconds? You can't, it was a thank you phone call," Bervar said. He argued that making political donations is not illegal. 

The defendants argue that the government hasn’t presented enough evidence to prove bribery occurred.

Lead counsel for Mitsunaga, Nina Marino of Kaplan Marino Law in Los Angeles, ended the day by reminding the jury that “Love and fear are powerful motivators.” 

In an apparent running gag, jurors in the high-profile trial have been color-coordinating their attire. After donning purple hues on Monday, the 14-member panel opted for bright yellow shades on Tuesday following a rainy weekend.

Wednesday's session will feature closing arguments by attorneys for the three remaining defendants — Otani, Tanaka and McDonald. The government will have a chance for rebuttal, with jury deliberations to begin once closing arguments are over.


CB: Campaign Contributions Or Bribes In Disguise? Closing Arguments Begin In Kaneshiro Bribery Trial 

HNN: Jury deliberating fate of ex-city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, campaign donors in bribery trial


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