Thomas Otake was just bumped from another high-profile case.

The federal prosecutors pursuing felony conspiracy charges against three former Honolulu officials are trying to remove a prominent defense attorney from the case.  

The U.S. Attorney’s office said it’s a conflict of interest for defense attorney Thomas Otake to represent former Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong because Otake’s law partner Loretta Sheehan is a “significant government witness,” according to a motion to the U.S. District court filed on Tuesday. Otake and Sheehan both work for the law firm Davis Levin Livingston.

“Although her testimony is primed to cut against Leong, the task of discrediting Sheehan will fall on Otake – Sheehan’s partner from the same law firm,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Chiang wrote. “These entanglements jeopardize the integrity of the proceedings; needlessly so.” 

Attorney Thomas Otake press conference for a possible 3rd trial involving Christopher Deedy.
Attorney Thomas Otake said he believes the conflict of interest claim was “manufactured in an attempt to kick me off the case.” (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

The U.S. Attorney’s office asked the court to convene a hearing to discuss Otake’s alleged conflict of interest. Otake said he plans to contest any effort to disqualify him. 

Leong was indicted last year alongside former Honolulu Police Commission chair Max Sword and former managing director Roy Amemiya. The trio is accused of improperly granting former police chief Louis Kealoha a $250,000 exit package as an incentive to persuade him to retire while he was under a federal corruption investigation.

The feds said city officials needed approval from the Honolulu City Council before paying off Kealoha, who is now in federal prison. 

Leong, Sword and Amemiya all pleaded not guilty. A trial is scheduled for June 26 before U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi. 

Sheehan was a member of the Honolulu Police Commission at the time the retirement deal was being considered, and she was the lone vote against it. At that time, and in the years since, she has publicly criticized the deal as an unnecessary “golden parachute.” The city could have fired Kealoha for cause at no cost, she has argued. 

Campaign Chair Loretta Sheehan gesturing as she speaks the press after former first Lady Vicky Cayetano announces that she is officially running as a Democrat for Governor of the State of Hawai‘i during News conference at Hawai‘i State Capitol grounds on Monday August 30, 2021. Ronen Zilberman Civil Beat.
Loretta Sheehan was the only Honolulu Police Commission member to vote against the $250,000 payout to former police chief Louis Kealoha. (Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021)

Sheehan, therefore, is at the “nucleus of this case,” Chiang wrote. The situation may compromise Otake’s ability to provide a “full-throated defense” and might give Leong cause to later argue that she was deprived of proper legal representation, the feds argue. 

In a statement, Otake said his client is innocent and wants him to represent her. 

“I believe this alleged conflict has been manufactured in an attempt to kick me off the case,” he said. 

“I take my ethical obligations very seriously and would withdraw if I thought there was an unresolvable issue,” he added. “However, I will not give in to improper attempts by the government and others to gain advantage in a case by interfering with someone’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel of their choice.” 

Sheehan declined to comment on the federal government’s motion on Tuesday because she is a witness in the case. 

The attempt to disqualify Otake comes after he was recently bumped from another case over conflicts of interest. He was the lead trial attorney for alleged crime boss Michael Miske until a federal judge found that his prior representation of two other people connected to the case was problematic. 

Ali Silvert, a former federal public defender who cracked open the Kealoha corruption scandal, said if Leong is comfortable with Otake representing her, it shouldn’t be a problem. According to Silvert, the feds are unlikely to get Otake removed from the Leong case.

“I don’t think that’s going to fly,” he said, adding conflict of interest issues are often addressed by creating an ethical barrier between attorneys. “The U.S. Attorney’s office does it all the time.”

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