Attorney charged in public corruption probe makes special requests from court in first appearance

Sheri Tanaka’s attorney entered a non-guilty plea on her behalf.
Published: Oct. 14, 2022 at 6:07 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 14, 2022 at 6:31 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - An attorney accused of conspiracy in a city corruption scandal made her first appearance in court Friday ― as a defendant.

Sheri Tanaka’s attorney entered a non-guilty plea on her behalf.

Tanaka entered the federal courthouse surrounded by supporters.

She was charged with conspiracy last month joining the group of defendants that include ex-city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, businessman Dennis Mitsunaga and three of his employees at Mitsunaga and Associates, an engineering firm. All are accused of framing a fired worker for a crime because she filed a discrimination lawsuit.

Prosecutors: Kaneshiro, alleged co-conspirators tried to frame woman for crime

Tanaka is the civil attorney for the firm and accompanied dozens of grand jury witnesses who testified ahead of the indictment.

She told the judge Friday that she still needs to work with some of them, and wants the no contact order amended.

“This is a criminal case. And in a criminal case, she does not represent the individual employees. Her loyalty is to the company,” said retired federal public defender Alexander Silvert.

“There’s a real issue here, whether as an attorney for the company she should really have any right to talk to any of the witnesses in a criminal case against her.”

No contact orders are to protect witnesses from being intimidated.

There are upwards of 300 witnesses who have been called in the case, according to the defense.

The prosecution told the court they could provide a more narrow list of witnesses they do not want her to contact and submit to the pretrial services office.

Legal expert Megan Kau said the list would make it clear.

“You can talk to these witnesses, you can’t talk to these witnesses,” she said.

Tanaka has hired Mark Mermelstein, a lawyer from California.

But federal court rules require her to also hire a local one.

“The local attorney is actually sponsoring or vouching for the quality of the mainland attorney,” said legal expert Victor Bakke.

The Hawaii attorney is also readily available. “Somebody here to be responsible for proof of service, last minute hearings,” Bakke said.

He added that person would also have to take over if the outside attorney wasn’t able to finish the case. “The judge isn’t going to just drop the case and start all over.”

But Tanaka doesn’t want to pay for a local counsel, too; she wants to represent herself.

The experts said that is a very unusual request.

There have been many defendants who represented themselves, but Silvert said he has never seen a defendant who is a lawyer try it to satisfy the local counsel requirement.

Magistrate Judge Wes Reber Porter also seemed surprised by the request.

Trial for Tanaka and the others is currently set for March 21.

Tanaka had her attorney invoke her right to a speedy trial, but legal experts said that won’t happen given the number of defendants and the scope of the case.

Porter said these issues would be discussed as they come up in court filings.