Sheri Jean Tanaka, an attorney for a prominent engineering firm whose CEO is fighting federal charges, was arrested in California in connection with her client’s case and is currently in custody, according to court records filed Tuesday in federal court. 

Tanaka has been charged alongside the CEO, Dennis Mitsunaga, and associates of his firm who were accused of bribing former Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro. Federal prosecutors say Mitsunaga and his accomplices directed over $45,000 to the prosecutor so that he would pursue a bogus prosecution of a former employee of the firm, Laurel Mau. 

The first five defendants pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges. Court records did not indicate Tanaka’s plea on Tuesday.

Attorney Sheri Tanaka has represented Mitsunaga & Associates. Blaze Lovell/CivilBeat/2019

A superseding indictment unsealed on Tuesday reveals Tanaka was an anonymous co-conspirator described in the original charging documents. The original indictment characterized her only as an unnamed attorney licensed in Hawaii and California who represents Mitsunaga and Associates Inc. in administrative, civil and criminal matters. 

The new indictment says Tanaka met with Kaneshiro and his executive assistant in October 2012 to persuade him to investigate and prosecute Mau. To that end, Tanaka and other defendants donated to Kaneshiro’s political campaign. Campaign finance records show Tanaka donated $250 to Kaneshiro’s reelection effort on Oct. 25, 2012, the date noted in the indictment.

Tanaka followed up with emails and met again with Kaneshiro and his executive assistant for lunch in 2013, according to the indictment.

“It is amazing how Mr. Kaneshiro and Mr. Mitsunaga are so much alike,” she wrote in an email after the lunch. “They are both incredible individuals with so many accomplishments and are such an inspiration to those around them. I am glad we had the opportunity to get together and have such an enjoyable lunch.”

That same day, Mitsunaga donated $4,000 to Kaneshiro’s campaign, as did his wife. His associate Terri Otani gave $2,000, according to the indictment.

Tanaka also spoke to Kaneshiro by phone several times in 2014 and provided him with transcripts of Mau’s deposition in a civil case, the indictment states.

Dennis Mitsunaga walks out from US District Court.
Dennis Mitsunaga was released on bond following his not guilty plea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Tanaka did not reply to phone and email messages seeking comment. Court records didn’t indicate whether she has a lawyer.

Former federal public defender Ali Silvert, who closely follows the federal corruption probe, said it’s “very unusual” for the government to prosecute a defense attorney for involvement in their own client’s criminal conspiracy. Doing so would require special permission from the Department of Justice, he said.

“You have to be sure before you charge that whatever they did wasn’t in the course of their duties as a lawyer,” he said. “Because then you’re interfering with a defendant’s constitutional rights to have an attorney.” 

A trial is scheduled on March 21 before Chief District Judge J. Michael Seabright.

Tanaka has been a licensed attorney in Hawaii since 2010. After graduating from Brigham Young University with a broadcast journalism degree, she clerked for former judge Steve Alm, who is now the city prosecutor, according to public testimony submitted in 2014 after Gov. Neil Abercrombie nominated her to the board of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority. She later opened her own law firm.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author