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Judge in a bribery case against Honolulu's former top prosecutor is suddenly recusing himself

HONOLULU (AP) — A month before the start of a bribery trial against Honolulu’s former top prosecutor, the judge who has been presiding over the case since 2022 unexpectedly recused himself.

U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright issued an order Wednesday morning recusing himself in the case against former Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney 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 architectural firm bribed the prosecutor with campaign donations in exchange for Kaneshiro’s prosecution of a former company employee.

Seabright's order doesn't 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 to prevent her from exercising her rights by filing a civil rights lawsuit against the firm. The first count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, the second count 10 years.

The indictment alleges that Mitsunaga & Associates employees, along with an attorney listed as an unindicted co-conspirator, contributed more than $45,000 to Kaneshiro’s reelection campaigns between October 2012 and October 2016.

They allegedly got family members, business partners, employees and contractors to donate as well to get around individual campaign contribution limits.

The former employee targeted with prosecution had been a project architect at Mitsunaga & Associates for 15 years when she was fired without explanation on the same day she expressed disagreement with claims the CEO made against her, court documents said.

Kaneshiro’s office prosecuted the architect, whom court documents identify only as L.J.M., but a judge dismissed the case in 2017 for lack of probable cause.

Kaneshiro took a leave of absence as Honolulu’s prosecuting attorney in March 2019 after he became a target of the federal investigation. He didn’t run for reelection in 2020, and his term expired in January 2021.

Kaneshiro's defense attorney, Birney Bervar, declined to comment on the recusal.

Alexander Silvert, a retired federal defender not involved in the case, said a judge stepping away from a case like this is highly unusual, especially given how long Seabright has been on it.

“This is a high publicity case for Hawaii, given that it was the city and county’s lead prosecutor,” Silvert said.

The unexpected move could mean there was a conflict of interest that Seabright recently learned about or there is a personal issue, Silvert said.

A woman who answered the phone in his chambers said, “He’s not providing any comment,” and hung up.

“We have no comment on this,” Lucy Carrillo, clerk of court of the Hawaii district, said in response to an email from The Associated Press asking if the judge could comment.

A nominee of President George W. Bush who has been on the bench since 2005, Seabright previously spent nearly two decades as a federal prosecutor, including overseeing white collar and organized crime cases in the U.S. attorney’s office in Hawaii.

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This story has been corrected to show it was Silvert, not Seabright who suggested there could be a conflict of interest.