For years, the M Nightclub, owned and operated in downtown Honolulu by alleged organized crime boss Michael Miske, was known as a den of debauchery and violence.
A recent indictment, one that accuses Miske and his associates of a series of crimes, including murder, murder-for-hire, armed robbery and the deployment of potentially deadly pesticides on their dance club patrons, only adds to the reputation.
Yet in recent years, before the nightclub was closed down, records show, some of Hawaii’s most recognizable politicians — including Hawaii Gov. David Ige, state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim and former Honolulu City Councilman Trevor Ozawa — used the club to hold lucrative political fundraisers.
For instance, documents from the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission show that Ige’s gubernatorial campaign hosted an event at the club on Nov. 5, 2013. At the time, Ige was considered a longshot candidate taking on an incumbent governor, albeit an unpopular one. The suggested contribution was $250.
By then, M Nightclub’s status as a dangerous place was well known. Earlier that year Miske and two other men, John Stancil and Michael Buntenbah, were arrested for assaulting an NFL football player, who was in Honolulu for the Pro Bowl. Both Stancil and Buntenbah are named in the recent federal indictment and have been described by prosecutors as two of Miske’s top lieutenants.
The January 2013 assault on Trent Williams — who now plays for the San Francisco 49ers — made national headlines.
Miske’s notoriety only grew when just a few months later he was arrested and charged again for yet another assault that had occurred outside his club in December 2012. In that incident, Miske is accused of beating up a local promoter.
Gordon Arakaki and Ryan Kalei Tsuji are listed in state records as the organizers of Ige’s fundraiser at the M Nightclub. In recent interviews, they both said they remembered the assault on Williams but that they never had any interactions with Miske and don’t recall him being present during the event.
Tsuji, a Honolulu journalist who now works as a media consultant, said he had chosen the location because he had hosted events there in the past for groups, such as the Boys & Girls Club.
Arakaki said the recent indictment of Miske describes him as a “spooky guy,” but that he did not make the connection in 2013 between Miske’s assault on Williams and his ownership of the M Nightclub. Had he pieced it together, Arakaki said, the campaign likely would have reconsidered hosting a fundraiser at that location for the man who would go on to become Hawaii’s governor.
“David is really squeaky clean,” Arakaki said. “He’s probably one of the smartest, most honest guys I know, so I’m sure if he would have known anything we wouldn’t have had the fundraiser there.”
Records from the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission show that in addition to Ige, Kim, Ozawa, state senators Gil Riviere, Maile Shimabukuro and Breene Harimoto, who died of cancer this summer, and state Rep. Daniel Holt held fundraisers at Miske’s M Nightclub between 2012 and 2015.
The fundraising reports also show Honolulu City Councilman Brandon Elefante’s campaign held a fundraiser at the nightclub in 2017, although by then the name had been changed to Encore at the Row. Federal investigators have said in court records Encore was part of Miske’s enterprise even though he often tried to obscure his ownership in the companies by using straw men and women to “avoid prosecution and tracing of his assets.”
Elefante told Civil Beat he had no idea that Miske was affiliated with the club when his campaign chose it as the site for his fundraiser. He said he was simply looking for a convenient location in downtown Honolulu where both city hall and the State Capitol are located.
“I did have an event there, but I never met Mr. Miske,” Elefante said. “We were just looking for a space in town, and we felt that was a good venue.”
Holt told a similar story. He held a fundraiser at the nightclub in 2012, which was before Miske was arrested for the series of high profile assaults. Holt said he never met him and didn’t know anything about him at the time.
Kim, Harimoto, Riviere and Shimabukuro all held a fundraiser at M Nightclub on May 5, 2015, an event that, records show, was organized by Brigitte Yoshino, who worked on Kim’s campaign and is now the chairwoman of the Candidate Advisory Council for the University of Hawaii that helps the governor select the university’s regents.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Riviere said he remembers the event well because it came on the heels of the Legislature approving a tax extension for Honolulu rail and Kim being overthrown as Senate president.
A lot of well-known officials attended the event, Riviere said, including Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, but he couldn’t recall whether Miske himself was at the nightclub that evening because outside of recent news reports he didn’t know much about him.
“It was just a fundraiser for all I knew,” Riviere said. “I don’t think I ever met him.”
Regardless of whether Miske was present, May 5, 2015 appears to have been a lucrative night for Kim and her colleagues as their campaigns reported raising more than $20,000 that day between the four of them. Kim by far took the largest share with donors pumping more than $13,000 into her campaign.
Among those contributing to Kim’s campaign on that date were Bruce Coppa, John Radcliffe and George “Red” Morris — who at the time were three of the state’s most influential lobbyists — top executives from Alexander & Baldwin, the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association and the political action committee for Street Bikers United Hawaii.
Neither Kim or Shimabukuro responded to Civil Beat’s requests for comment.
In 2014, Trevor Ozawa held one of his first fundraisers at the M Nightclub. He described it as a simple affair and said that Miske was not involved at all.
“I had never even heard of that guy at that time,” Ozawa said.
That changed after Ozawa won the election. Miske, who lived in Portlock, was now Ozawa’s constituent.
He said his first interaction came in October 2016 when Miske reached out to Ozawa’s office about safety concerns at the Spitting Caves, a popular shoreline attraction also known as China Wall in the Portlock neighborhood. Ozawa said he forwarded those concerns to state legislators who were better situated to help with that issue.
Just a few months later, in December 2016, Ozawa would again have dealings with Miske, this time over Christmas tree lights that he had strung up in a public park to honor his son, Caleb-Jordan Miske-Lee, who had died in a car accident that occurred the year before.
Miske is now accused by federal prosecutors of orchestrating the murder of Miske-Lee’s friend, Jonathan Fraser, who was in the vehicle with him at the time of the crash and who Miske incorrectly believed was behind the wheel at the time.
As first reported by Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind, the lights were installed in violation of city rules and a number of local residents were beginning to complain. There were also concerns that Miske had received special treatment.
Ozawa helped to set up a meeting between Miske and city parks officials to come to an agreement about what to do. He also introduced legislation — backed by state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim — to create an adopt-a-tree program. City officials eventually accepted the lights as a “gift” and issued Miske a special permit.
Email records obtained from the city by Lind showed Miske had also threatened to have his “Uncle Buzzy” cut down the tree if he didn’t get his way. Uncle Buzzy, Lind reported, referred to William “Buzz” Hong, a former Honolulu police officer who’s politically well connected.
Hong used to run an organized crime task force for the city prosecutor’s office, was the executive director of the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council and sat on the board for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which oversees the city’s $9 billion rail project.
Ozawa said he treated Miske the way he would any other constituent. He also pointed out that it was the city administration and not his office that ultimately worked out an agreeable solution between both sides.
“This insinuation that there was some sort of special treatment is absolutely unfounded and untrue,” Ozawa said. He added that he found the accusations in the recent criminal indictment against Miske “shocking.”
“I’ve been out of office since Jan. 2, 2019 and the lights have still gone up,” Ozawa said. “We were absolutely unaware of any of the constituent’s actions that led to the recent breaking news or any of the allegations surrounding him.”
As a businessman, Miske’s companies often interacted with government officials and regulators. In addition to the M Nightclub, Miske owned and operated a number of other companies, including a plumbing business and Kama’aina Termite and Pest Control, which federal investigators have since described as a headquarters for Miske’s alleged criminal enterprise.
Over the years, state and federal records show, he’s only made a handful of reportable political contributions to Hawaii candidates.
Among the top recipients is Sen. Donna Kim, who Miske and Kama’aina Termite supported with thousands of dollars in political contributions when she ran for state senate and U.S. Congress.
Others who have received financial backing from Miske include former U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who died in 2012, former Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin and current City Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi, who, records show, received a $500 donation from Miske in 2018.
Several of Miske’s donations to Martin and Kim’s congressional campaigns were also made that year. Miske’s donations to Martin occurred in 2018 when he was running for Congress. Martin said he met Miske at a fundraiser, and that at the time all he knew about him was that he was the owner of Kama’aina Termite and Pest Control.
“That’s how I was introduced to him and that’s pretty much it,” Martin said. “I’m as surprised as anyone else is.”
Tsuneyoshi did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment.
Our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Whether you’ve valued our in-depth, fact-based journalism for 10 years or 10 days, now is the time we need you the most. Please consider supporting our newsroom by making a tax deductible gift.