Kaneshiro, Mitsunaga federal bribery trial begins

FILE - In this file photo, Keith Kaneshiro, Honolulu's prosecuting attorney, talks in his office in Honolulu. Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors asked the state's highest court on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, to immediately suspend Kaneshiro because he is the target of a federal investigation. (AP Photo/Cathy Bussewitz, File)

Political donor Dennis Mitsunaga, his associates and family members contributed $48,250 in campaign funds to then-­Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro as Kaneshiro’s office pursued a criminal case against a fired Mitsunaga employee who later sued the company for discrimination, the U.S. Attorney’s office said Wednesday on the opening day of the federal bribery trial of Kaneshiro, Mitsunaga and four of Mitsunaga’s employees.

A Honolulu Police Department detective and the original deputy prosecutor who investigated allegations of theft by the former employee, Laurel Mau, concluded there was insufficient evidence, U.S. Deputy Attorney Michael Wheat said in his opening arguments.


Criminal theft charges — that Mau had used Mitsu ­naga company time and resources to do “side jobs” just like other Mitsunaga employees — were eventually filed against Mau after Kaneshiro later assigned the case to a deputy prosecutor who had been in Kaneshiro’s office for just four months, Wheat said.

Mitsunaga employees videotaped Mau as she left the company after being fired on Nov. 10, 2011, videotaped her again after she was arraigned on felony theft charges in Circuit Court, sued her and challenged her unemployment claim, which was upheld, and then appealed that ruling, Wheat said.

After Mau was fired from Mitsu ­naga &Associates, she filed a federal sex and age discrimination lawsuit against the company in September 2012.

A company employee, Terri Ann Otani, reached out to friend and then-Council member Ann Kobayashi in October 2012 to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Kaneshiro and Mitsunaga to discuss the theft allegations against Mau, Wheat said.

Three weeks after their first meeting, on Oct. 1, 2012, the first donations of $13,250 from Mitsunaga, his family and employees were reported by Kaneshiro’s political campaign.

“There’s only one criminal side job,” Wheat said. “That’s Keith Kaneshiro’s side job … prosecuting Laurel Mau for personal gain.”

Mau was a central figure on the first day of the trial.

Attorneys for Kaneshiro, Mitsunaga and their co-­defendants portrayed her as greedy and manipulative to keep doing side work on company time, using company email and phones and the company’s name to obtain building permits for projects not sanctioned by Mitsunaga &Associates.

Kaneshiro’s attorney, Birney Bervar, asked Kaneshiro to stand up for the jury to more clearly see him as Bervar began his opening statement.

Kaneshiro pursued a criminal case against Mau because a “crime” had been committed, Bervar said.

Bervar said Kaneshiro did not accept donations to any personal accounts and, like other attorneys for Kaneshiro’s co-defendants, emphasized that campaign donations are legal, carefully documented and a “First Amendment right.”

He acknowledged that prominent donors like Mi ­tsunaga “get access” to politicians but said “the evidence will show this is not a bribery.”

During their 2012 initial meeting, Bervar said that Mitsunaga expressed that he was “unsatisfied ” that the initial investigation into theft allegations against Mau had been dropped.

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