HONOLULU– A month before the start of a bribery trial against Honolulu’s former top prosecutor, the judge presiding over the case since 2022 unexpectedly recuses himself.
U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright issued an order Wednesday morning to bail himself out in the case against former Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro.
Jury selection was scheduled to begin next month in one of Hawaii’s most anticipated criminal trials.
Seabright has presided over the case since a U.S. grand jury indicted Kaneshiro and four others in 2022, alleging that employees of an engineering and architecture firm bribed the prosecutor with campaign donations in exchange for Kaneshiro prosecuting a former employee of the company.
Seabright’s order does not explain his recusal.
All five have pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the city and county of Honolulu and one count of conspiracy to intimidate the former employee into preventing her from exercising her rights by filing a civil rights lawsuit against the company. The first count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, the second count 10 years.
The prosecution alleges that Mitsunaga & Associates employees, along with an attorney listed as an unindicted co-conspirator, contributed more than $45,000 to Kaneshiro’s re-election campaigns between October 2012 and October 2016.
They allegedly got family members, business associates, employees and contractors to donate to get around individual campaign contribution limits.
The former employee who is the subject of the process was a project architect at Mitsunaga. & Associates for 15 years when she was fired without explanation the same day she expressed disagreement with allegations the CEO made against her, according to court documents.
Kaneshiro’s office prosecuted the architect, whom court documents identify only as LJM, but a judge dismissed the case in 2017 for lack of probable cause.
Kaneshiro took a leave of absence as a Honolulu prosecutor in March 2019 after becoming a target of the federal investigation. He did not run for reelection in 2020 and his term expired in January 2021.
Retired federal defender Alexander Silvert said a judge walking away from a case like this is highly unusual, especially considering how long Seabright has been on it.
“This is a high-publicity case for Hawaii, given that he was the top prosecutor for the city and county,” Silvert said.
The unexpected move could mean there was a conflict of interest that Seabright recently learned about or that there is a personal problem, Seabright said.
There was no immediate response to an email from The Associated Press sent to the court clerk and Seabright’s courtroom manager asking if the judge could comment on his recusal.