A Honolulu defense attorney is taking the rare step of asking a judge to disqualify the entire city prosecuting attorney’s office from pursuing a high-profile drug case against one of his clients because of a conflict of interest that he says puts her life in danger.
William Harrison represents Tiffany Masunaga, who is currently facing felony drug charges after her arrest in 2015 as part of an undercover narcotics sting by the Honolulu Police Department. The investigation also netted Alan Ahn, a corrupt former cop who now faces up to 10 years in prison.
On Tuesday, Harrison filed a motion in state court that seeks to prevent city prosecutors from handling the case against Masunaga due to a “serious conflict issue” that he says taints the entire department, including Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro.
Harrison said he would prefer that the Hawaii attorney general’s office or other neutral, third-party prosecutor — such as from a neighbor island — be appointed to the case so that his client can be protected from unfair prosecution.
“It is a very rare motion to file,” Harrison told Civil Beat. “I can’t recollect ever filing a motion to disqualify the prosecuting attorney’s office in a case.”
Harrison, who’s been practicing criminal law for 36 years, refused to divulge what conflicts the prosecutor’s office might have. He said doing so publicly could threaten Masunaga’s safety as well as hinder other ongoing criminal investigations.
Masunaga and Ahn were arrested in August 2015 after a police raided their house and found cocaine, marijuana and other prescription drugs. They were both charged with numerous counts of promoting dangerous drugs
Ahn pleaded no contest to the charges on Jan. 31, and is scheduled for sentencing in April. He has asked the judge for leniency so that he can avoid jail time and have his record wiped clean if he stays out of trouble.
Harrison has asked Circuit Court Judge Rom Trader to review his motion in secret. He also asked that city prosecutors be precluded from hearing the evidence to the support the motion, saying that doing so could also harm his client.
In court records, Harrison says that Masunaga is “in possession of facts and evidence which if publicly disclosed would jeopardize her safety and be detrimental to ongoing investigations.” He further notes that the information came to him via “confidential communications” that should not be disclosed to prosecutors because of the conflicts.
Harrison told Civil Beat that he’s absolutely adamant about protecting his client’s safety, which is why he doesn’t want anyone in Kaneshiro’s office getting their hands on the information Masunaga supposedly has in her possession.
“This information really should not go to the prosecutor’s office because of the conflict itself,” Harrison said. “We want to stay away from anybody who could do her harm, and we include in that the prosecutor’s office.”
Harrison would not comment on what he thinks are specific conflicts of interest.
But Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Katherine Kealoha, who heads the career criminal division, has been helping prosecute the Masunaga case.
Kealoha is married to outgoing Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha. Both are involved in a U.S. Justice Department investigation for corruption and abuse of power stemming from allegations that they framed a family member to gain the upper hand in a legal dispute over money.
Since Ahn was a Honolulu police officer, it’s unclear why she was assigned to the case.
Kaneshiro refused to comment on Harrison’s motion, saying through spokesman Chuck Parker that the office doesn’t discuss pending or ongoing cases.
Civil Beat also asked about Kealoha’s potential conflicts in the Ahn case because of her relationship to the chief. Parker refused to comment on that as well.
Harrison recently took over the case from attorney Myles Breiner.
Breiner has raised eyebrows in the legal community because he is the Kealohas criminal defense attorney at the same time that he has been representing other clients, like Masunaga, in cases against the HPD.
Breiner refused to comment about the Masunaga case to Civil Beat.
A federal judge last month removed him from another case in which he was suing HPD on behalf of two men who were assaulted by an undercover cop.