Judge Michael Seabright did not say why he is recusing himself, and his office declined to comment.
Just weeks before a high-profile corruption trial is set to begin, the federal judge who has presided over the case for years is bowing out.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Seabright filed a one-sentence order on Wednesday morning declaring his recusal from the case against former Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and local businessman Dennis Mitsunaga. Kaneshiro, Mitsunaga and several co-defendants have all pleaded not guilty, and the trial is slated to start on Feb. 27.
The filing states the judge is recusing himself from “any and all proceedings” in the case and is doing so “on its own motion” – meaning not at the request of either the government or the defense.
The judge did not cite a reason for the recusal and a law clerk who answered his office phone Wednesday afternoon declined to comment.
Mitsunaga is accused of trying to buy the prosecution of a former employee he aimed to punish. The businessman and his associates allegedly steered nearly $50,000 in campaign contributions to Kaneshiro while persuading Kaneshiro’s office to take the case.
One deputy prosecutor declined to pursue the matter, but a new hire at the time, Jake Delaplane, filed the charges sought by Mitsunaga’s firm. A state court judge ultimately threw the case out for lack of merit.
Kaneshiro, Mitsunaga and Mitsunaga associates Chad Michael McDonald, Aaron Fujii, Terri Ann Otani and Sheri Tanaka were indicted in 2022.
Seabright’s recusal comes amid a flurry of motions this week from prosecutors and defense attorneys about which evidence should and should not be presented to the jury.
The defense, for instance, wants to exclude mention of Katherine Kealoha, the disgraced Honolulu prosecutor who was Delaplane’s boss at the time of the Mitsunaga matter. The defense is arguing that Kealoha was not involved in the current case, and invoking her name could unfairly sway the jury.
In its own motion, the government defended its intention to present evidence not only of the campaign contributions Mitsunaga and his colleagues directed to Kaneshiro but also the so-called “bundling” of donations directed at other politicians.
The feds’ filing says Mitsunaga and his employees “used their well-established contribution scheme to donate to politicians with whom future building projects would be considered and approved,” including former Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell, former congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa and former governors Benjamin Cayetano and Neil Abercrombie. Mitsunaga served as a campaign finance chair for Abercrombie.
Honolulu City Council member Ann Kobayashi also received some Mitsunaga campaign donations and was the person who brokered the first meeting between Kaneshiro and Mitsunaga, prosecutors said in a motion.
Donations from Mitsunaga-connected individuals were reported on the same dates between November 2006 and Dec. 31, 2020, according to the feds, who are arguing that this behavior was part of a pattern. The defense wants to exclude this evidence on the grounds that it is irrelevant to the charges at hand.
In another motion, the defense took issue with the jury learning about a prior order from Seabright himself.
In 2021, Seabright found that Joann Fujii, the wife of defendant Aaron Fujii, was “abusing” the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and that her refusal to answer any questions at all during the grand jury was “simply absurd.”
The defense asked the court to exclude Seabright’s order as “inadmissible hearsay,” putting Seabright in the position of ruling about a matter involving himself.
Seabright left the case before ruling on any of the recent motions.
The court docket does not yet indicate which judge will take over the case.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
A good reason not to give
We know not everyone can afford to pay for news right now, which is why we keep our journalism free for everyone to read, listen, watch and share.
But that promise wouldn’t be possible without support from loyal readers like you.
Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.