The feds tried to get a Honolulu defense attorney booted from Donna Leong’s legal team.

Tommy Otake, a prominent Honolulu defense attorney, can continue representing a former city official under indictment despite an effort by federal prosecutors to have him removed from the case, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

Donna Leong, Honolulu’s former corporation counsel, is fighting federal charges that she conspired with two others to improperly grant a $250,000 severance payment to former police chief Louis Kealoha. She hired attorneys Lynn Panagakos and Otake to defend her.

But federal prosecutors, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat, took issue with Otake, who, until recently, was a law partner to a witness in the case. That witness, Loretta Sheehan, was a Honolulu police commissioner at the time of Kealoha’s payout.

Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong speaks at a Honolulu Police Commission meeting on November 15, 2017
Former Honolulu corporation counsel Donna Leong was indicted alongside former managing director Roy Amemiya and former police commission chair Max Sword. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017)

During a court hearing last month, Sheehan testified that she once had a conversation with Otake about confidential commission matters and that she believed they had an attorney-client relationship. That could create a conflict of interest for Otake, according to U.S. Attorney Andrew Chang, who said the government wants to ensure Leong gets a fair trial.

“We want to protect the integrity of the verdict,” he said. “He should not be representing Ms. Leong at this point in time.”

Otake told the court he did not remember any such conversation, and even if he did, he wouldn’t allow it to affect his representation of Leong. Besides, he said, Leong wants to keep on Otake on her legal team.

Sheehan testified that she had no objection to Otake continuing to defend Leong, as long as confidential information wasn’t shared.

Attorney Thomas Otake said it seems like federal prosecutors want him gone because of his record of success defending his clients. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In a written ruling on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi wrote that as long as Sheehan signs a conflict of interest waiver, Otake can continue representing Leong. The judge wrote that there is no actual conflict and that Leong has a constitutional right to use the attorney of her choice.

In court, Otake characterized the government’s effort to limit his role in the case as an effort to rob his client of the best legal representation. He noted he has won federal trials despite federal prosecutors having a conviction rate near 100%.

“Do I think that might have something to do with this effort?” he asked. “I think it might.”

Kobayashi seemed to agree.

“Certainly what a compliment it is that they file these kinds of motions against you, Mr. Otake,” Kobayashi said to chuckles in the courtroom.

Leong’s trial, alongside former managing director Roy Amemiya and former police commission chair Max Sword, is scheduled for June 26.

Earlier this year, a federal judge ordered Otake be removed from another case involving accused Honolulu crime boss Michael Miske because Otake had attended a 2014 meeting with Miske and a witness in the case, creating a conflict of interest.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Otake was removed from the Miske case because he had withdrawn.

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