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One thing that makes Anosh Yaqoob’s candidacy to become Oahu’s top prosecutor so unusual is that he really has no plan for what to do if elected.
Yaqoob is a 33-year-old Iolani School graduate who was born and raised in Hawaii. He survived cancer as a child and now operates his own criminal defense law practice out of his home in Salt Lake.
His candidacy could generously be described as a long shot. But he’s the only person running in this year’s general election against Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, who has held office since 2010.
During a recent interview with Civil Beat at a Manoa Valley coffee shop, Yaqoob not only struggled to articulate why he was running but also seemed to lack a basic understanding of the inner workings of the prosecutor’s office.
He often described himself as an “outsider” who would learn on the fly. And he refused to name any specific law enforcement initiatives he would like to pursue as a prosecutor. That’s in stark contrast to his opponent, who has been a vocal crusader for causes such as combating animal cruelty and advocating for a family justice center where victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking can turn for help.
Yaqoob, who is of Pakistani descent, complained of rampant racism and nepotism inside Honolulu’s law firms, particularly as it applies to hiring. He said he believes the favoritism and exclusion extends into the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“I just get the feeling that racism is a prevalent factor in terms of hiring and other ways in which that office operates,” Yaqoob said. “What I have is a general impression, based upon my own experiences in dealing with this. I don’t have a good feeling. In fact, I had such a bad feeling that I decided to run against him.”
When pressed to describe his own experiences with racism at the prosecuting attorney’s office, he asked to take a break from the interview so that he could talk with his younger sister, Roheeni Yaqoob, who accompanied him to the interview and who he described as his assistant. In legal parlance, the Yaqoobs were asking for a recess.
The two of them stepped out of the coffee shop. They returned four minutes later and Yaqoob took his seat.
He said he had been hesitant to talk about this because he didn’t want it to become a focal point in the election. On several occasions, he said, he tried to become a prosecutor in Kaneshiro’s office but was rebuffed. He said it might have to do with his ethnicity and the way his name reads on an application.
In fact, he filed a discrimination complaint against Kaneshiro in 2012 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint went nowhere, however, and an official with Kaneshiro’s office told Civil Beat that Yaqoob’s allegations were not sustained.
Kaneshiro declined an interview request for this story, saying through a representative that he did not have time.
Yaqoob was apprehensive to discuss his EEOC complaint and said it doesn’t play a major role in his candidacy. He described it only as “one ingredient in a big gumbo.”
The incumbent, Kaneshiro, is one of only three men to hold the position since it became an elected office in 1981. He also served two terms from 1988 to 1996.
Yaqoob, on the other hand, has been practicing law for only eight years. He admitted he doesn’t have a campaign platform. His only promise for voters: He’s not Kaneshiro.
“I don’t really have a hard sell,” Yaqoob said. “I’m not here to pound away or impugn anybody or to attack in some ridiculous way. I’m not Hawaii’s Donald Trump or anything like that. I’m running because I think voters should get the chance to vote for somebody else.”
Yet Yaqoob did have criticisms of Kaneshiro.
He cited the example of Jon Riki Karamatsu, a former state lawmaker and prosecutor, who was twice busted for driving under the influence. Karamatsu was arrested for drunken driving in 2007 after he crashed his car into a concrete median when he was vice speaker of the state House of Representatives. He was later hired to work as a deputy city prosecutor after an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 2010.
Karamatsu brought unwelcome attention to the prosecuting attorney’s office in 2014 when it was discovered that he was an organizer of one of the largest raves in the state. In 2015, Karamatsu was again arrested for drunken driving. He resigned before charges were filed by the Attorney General’s Office.
Yaqoob questioned why Karamatsu’s criminal record didn’t disqualify him from getting a job as a prosecutor.
There are other topics he feels passionately about. For example, he called Honolulu’s sit-lie ban, which is aimed at keeping homeless people off city sidewalks, unconstitutional. Yaqoob said he wouldn’t enforce it if elected.
He was also critical of numerous stances Kaneshiro has taken over the years, like opposing recent sex trafficking legislation and the prosecutor’s handling of high-profile gambling case that was tossed out due to what one judge described as “a pattern of negligence.”
Yaqoob said he believes that Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Katherine Kealoha, who is married to Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, should be placed on leave while she and her husband are under federal investigation for corruption and abuse of power.
“My approach to any number of issues would be completely different than Keith Kaneshiro’s,” Yaqoob said. “To me, what this is about is giving voters a chance to have an alternative, a new person in office. Either we can extend a 30-year career or we can start a new one.”