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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Businessman, former prosecutor not guilty in Honolulu corruption case

The defense had argued federal prosecutors perverted the spirit of aloha by mischaracterizing Hawaii cultural practices of gift-giving and food-sharing as sinister acts.

HONOLULU (CN) — A federal jury in Honolulu returned not guilty verdicts across the board Thursday for former city prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, businessman Dennis Mitsunaga and four employees from his firm. The group stood accused of corruption charges stemming from a conspiracy and bribery plot, but the jury exonerated them on every count after a trial.

The verdict caps the nearly two-month trial in the high-profile corruption case. Prosecutors accused Mitsunaga along with four employees at his engineering firm — Terri Otani, Chief Operating Officer Aaron Fujii, President Chad McDonald, and former company attorney Sheri Tanaka — of paying around $50,000 in bribes disguised as campaign donations to Kaneshiro. 

They were indicted on federal charges including conspiracy, honest services wire fraud and federal program bribery in 2022.

It took the jury less than two days to reach their not guilty decisions, which were returned Friday afternoon. Tensions ran high as the jury exonerated the six defendants on each count.

The jury ruled all six defendants not guilty of conspiracy to defraud the city and county by corruptly trading bribes for ex-prosecutor Kaneshiro's services. For another charge of conspiracy to violate civil rights — another full sweep of not guilty verdicts.

The split courtroom reacted with gasps from one side, cheers from the other. Immediately after the not guilty verdict, U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess announced that Mitsunaga would be free from federal custody after being detained last month on additional charges of attempting to tamper with a witness during the duration of the trial.

"I'm so happy because it had a real effect on our business, it's really bad on our business," Mitsunaga said as he left the courthouse and federal custody. "The attorneys were all terrific, every one of them, everybody. Last thing I got to say is, I'm glad to be out of that cold cell."

Defense attorney Thomas Otake, celebrating with the six acquitted after the verdict, knocked the involvement of the San Diego-based federal prosecution team in remarks outside the courthouse.

"I ask that these federal prosecutors from the mainland be more responsible as they come over here and decide to charge people with crimes," Otake said. "I have a strong belief that the vast majority of our community members that serve is state and local government here are just wonderful hard working people, and this idea that everybody and everything in Hawaii is corrupt is just not the case. So we're just relieved, and we thank the jury and the court,"

U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess, sitting by designation from the District of Alaska, has presided over the case since U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright recused himself in January. An FBI investigation uncovered Tanaka was reportedly trying to arrange hits on Seabright and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat, the lead prosecutor.

In closing arguments, attorneys from both sides expressed gratitude to jurors for the massive task of weighing testimony from over 40 witnesses presented during the trial. The quirky panel of 14 jurors had been coordinating outfits by color most days throughout the duration of trial. 

Also during closing statement, Crystal Glendon, the attorney for Sheri Tanaka, accused the state of perverting the spirit of aloha by mischaracterizing Hawaii cultural practices of gift-giving and food-sharing as sinister acts.

She told jurors the prosecutors ”cherry-picked the facts that fit their tall tale. They couldn't drop the case after years of investigation, so they stitched together a story, Frankenstein style — this voicemail, those emails.” 

On the prospect of running for public office once more, Kaneshiro — once Honolulu's longest serving prosecutor — said, "It's too soon to decide whether to run again."

But he had an advocate in Mitsunaga, who stood behind him, saying an encouraging, "Run," with a slap on the back and a vow to support a potential Kaneshiro candidacy.

Categories / Criminal, Trials

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