- Special Projects
WASHINGTON — One of the men President Donald Trump tapped to defend him in his impeachment trial before the U.S. Senate has deep ties to Hawaii.
Mike Purpura was hired as deputy White House counsel in 2018, the same year Democrats won back control of the U.S. House in the November elections.
One of his main duties, according to reports, has been to shield the president from congressional subpoenas, including those seeking grand jury testimony from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Prior to taking the job in Washington, Purpura was the chief legal officer at BlackSand Capital, a private equity real estate firm in Honolulu.
He had also been a partner at Carlsmith Ball LLP, a Hawaii-based firm where he specialized in white collar criminal defense, internal investigations, complex civil litigation and crisis management.
Among his clients was Albert Hee, who was sentenced to federal prison in 2016 for tax fraud after federal prosecutors say he siphoned money from his telecommunications company to fuel a lavish lifestyle that included $90,000 in personal massages, salaries and benefits for his wife and kids, college tuition and family vacations to Disney World, Tahiti, France and Switzerland.
Hee is the brother of former state Sen. Clayton Hee.
Purpura has also represented Pioneer Hi Bred International in a lawsuit over pesticide drift from GMO test fields on Kauai, and Marc Hubbard, a North Carolina man who duped the University of Hawaii into paying him $250,000 after he lied about being able to book Stevie Wonder for an island concert to benefit the athletic program.
The case is infamously known now as the “Wonder Blunder.”
Purpura previously served in the White House Counsel’s Office under President George W. Bush. Purpura was considered the top contender by the Trump administration for Hawaii’s seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but he pulled his name from the running.
Trump then appointed former Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett to the post.
Purpura is an ardent defender of a president’s executive privilege when it comes to withholding documents and was quoted as such in a 2015 Wall Street Journal article about the Obama administration trying to block access to some of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails.
“Executive privilege is not a partisan issue,” Purpura said. “It’s important to protect the principle of allowing the president to receive candid, full, frank advice from his top advisers without fear that those deliberations and communications will become public.”
Campaign spending records show Purpura wasn’t always on Team Trump.
In 2015, he donated $5,000 to Right to Rise USA, a political action committee, or super PAC, that supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential candidacy.
Purpura also donated $250 in 2010 to Hawaii politician Charles Djou, who at the time was running as a Republican for the U.S. House. Djou has since left the GOP, saying he can no longer associate with a party led by Trump.
Purpura has spent much of his career bouncing between the East Coast and Hawaii.
He received his undergraduate degree from West Point in 1991, and then was stationed with the U.S. Army at Schofield Barracks on Oahu.
He went to law school at Columbia in New York City. Purpura was a clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Peter Leisure, a Ronald Reagan appointee, in the Southern District of New York.
Purpura then worked as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District, where he was assigned to the organized crime and counter terrorism unit.
He was a lead investigator and prosecutor in a case involving Susan Lindauer, a former congressional aide who the government accused of acting as a foreign agent for the Iraqi Intelligence Service. A federal judge eventually declared Lindauer mentally unfit to stand trial. Purpura was also involved in the prosecution and conviction of several members and associates of the Genovese organized crime family.
In 2004, Purpura moved back to Hawaii to work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office as part of a public corruption and white collar crime team.
While there he prosecuted Dalton Tanonaka, a former candidate for Hawaii lieutenant governor and U.S. House of Representatives, who pleaded guilty to accepting illegal campaign donations and making false statements on his bank loan applications as well as his financial disclosures.
Purpura was also assigned to defend an appeal from Andrew Mirikitani, a former Honolulu city councilman who was convicted of several felony charges, including theft, bribery, extortion and witness tampering.
By 2005 Purpura was back on the East Coast, working for the U.S. Justice Department as the special counsel to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. He was then hired by the Bush White House to represent the administration in congressional investigations.
Work alone doesn’t tie Purpura to Hawaii. Purpura, who is originally from West Virginia, is married to Betsy Somerville, a former professional tennis player from Hawaii. Sommerville won state championships with both Punahou School and La Pietra in the 1980s. In 2015, she was hired as the head coach of the Punahou girls varsity tennis team.
Over 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers in the U.S. have ceased operations since 2004 — among them the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Weekly. Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases.
Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor.
We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our small newsroom with a tax-deductible gift.