An Alaska judge will preside over an upcoming Hawaii bribery trial after an unexpected recusal

Jan 25, 2024, 5:43 PM

HONOLULU (AP) — A U.S. judge in Alaska will preside over an upcoming bribery trial in Hawaii against Honolulu’s former top prosecutor after a judge suddenly recused himself.

U.S. Senior District Judge Timothy Burgess will temporarily serve as a judge in the Hawaii district in the case against former Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, according to an order filed Thursday.

On Wednesday morning, U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright in Hawaii unexpectedly, and without explanation, recused himself from the case.

He presided over the case since a U.S. grand jury indicted Kaneshiro and five others in 2022, alleging that employees of an engineering and architectural firm bribed Kaneshiro with campaign donations in exchange for his prosecution of a former company employee.

All six have pleaded not guilty.

The indictment alleges that Mitsunaga & Associates employees and an attorney contributed more than $45,000 to Kaneshiro’s reelection campaigns between October 2012 and October 2016.

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 say.

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.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin next month, but it’s unclear if it will be delayed. Burgess will travel to Hawaii for hearings and the trial, said Lucy Carrillo, clerk of court of the Hawaii district. The next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 6.

It’s also unclear what prompted Seabright’s recusal.

“Whatever the issue is that caused Judge Seabright to recuse himself, it affects all of the local district court judges in some manner,” said Alexander Silvert, who isn’t involved in the case and retired after 31 years as a federal defender in Hawaii. “And therefore they’ve reached out of district in order to ensure a fair and impartial judge presides over the case.”

Both judges were nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005.

Burgess was the U.S. attorney for the Alaska district from 2001 to 2005 and before that, he had been a federal prosecutor in Alaska since 1989.

Seabright 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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An Alaska judge will preside over an upcoming Hawaii bribery trial after an unexpected recusal