Practice Areas

Isle judge kept quiet his ties to Harris

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

The judge had deferred the sentence for a Harris donor's campaign violations

By Rick Daysog

rdaysog@starbulletin.com

A state judge who granted a deferred sentence to a city contractor for laundering $140,000 to Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris' campaign did not disclose that his wife was appointed by Harris to an unpaid city commission post.

Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto did not inform attorneys with the city Prosecutor's Office and lawyers for SSFM International Inc. Chief Executive Officer Michael Matsumoto that his wife Kalene was appointed by Harris in 1998 to serve on the Neighborhood Commission.

The 46-year-old Sakamoto, a former deputy public defender who was appointed to the Circuit Court in 2000 by then-Gov. Ben Cayetano, is on the mainland and could not be reached for comment.

But Marsha Kitagawa, a spokeswoman for the Judiciary, said the judge would have disclosed the information about his wife had he felt that he could not be fair or impartial.

In July, Sakamoto ordered SSFM's Matsumoto to do 300 hours of community service and pay $15,000 to the state Crime Victims Compensation Fund after he pleaded no-contest to charges that he funneled about $140,000 to the Harris campaign through dozens of employees, relatives and friends.

Matsumoto's engineering firm is one of the city's largest outside contractors, having received more than $12 million in nonbid engineering work from the Harris administration.

Sakamoto gave Matsumoto no jail time and rejected prosecutors' call for probation and a $54,000 fine, citing his extensive community work. The judge also gave Matsumoto a deferred sentence that allows him to have his criminal case expunged after five years if he stays out of trouble.

Under state law, Matsumoto could have served up to 10 years in jail and could have been fined of up to $25,000.

The state's code of judicial conduct requires Sakamoto to avoid any appearance of impropriety in all of his activities. He also cannot allow family, social, political or other relationship to influence his decisions.

Prosecutors confirmed that Sakamoto did not disclose his wife's appointment with the city but declined further comment.

Howard Luke, Matsumoto's attorney, believes that it was an oversight on the part of Sakamoto and that the judge is "very scrupulous" in the way he handles cases. Court records show that Sakamoto disclosed to both parties that Matsumoto's son had worked as his physical therapist in the past.

"I don't see it as having made any difference in terms of his decision to grant a deferral of a no-contest plea," Luke said.

Bob Watada, executive director of the state Campaign Spending Commission, said Sakamoto should have disclosed his wife's city appointment.

Watada said the judge's sentence sent a bad message since it effectively gave one of the worst offenders of the state's campaign finance laws "a slap on the wrist."

"He treated Matsumoto like he was a shoplifter," Watada said. "I find it real problematic that his wife is an appointee of Harris."

Sakamoto's wife, Kalene Shim Sakamoto, currently serves as vice chairwoman of the Neighborhood Commission, which is a nine-member panel of volunteers who are responsible for reviewing andevaluating the city's neighborhood plan and its elected neighborhood boards.

Last year, Harris reappointed Kalene Sakamoto to a second five-year term.

Gerald Sekiya, chairman of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, declined comment about Sakamoto's situation, saying the commission -- which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct and disability -- cannot comment publicly on such matters.

Speaking generally in his capacity as an attorney, Sekiya said judges should disclose any information that may create an appearance of impropriety. But he said the disclosure requirement depends on the particular circumstances of the case and the failure to do so does not by itself constitute an ethical violation.

Chris Iijima, a University of Hawaii law professor, believes the connections are too tenuous to require disclosure. Even in the worst-case scenario, it's not clear that Matsumoto's sentencing can be directly linked to Harris' appointment, said Iijima, who teaches a course on professional responsibility. In January 1990, the Disciplinary Board of the state Supreme Court issued a public reprimand against Sakamoto when he serving as a deputy public defender.

The board found that Sakamoto failed to disclose to Circuit Judge Donald Tsukiyama the secret terms of a plea agreement that he had reached on behalf of a client, Guy Colburn, who pleaded no-contest to drug charges.