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Florence Nakakuni

The U.S. attorney for Hawaii has a tough job but likes serving justice

By Vicki Viotti

LAST UPDATED: 1:55 a.m. HST, Dec 3, 2010

U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni starts her days with a spectacular view afforded by a bank of windows on the federal building's sixth floor, overlooking Honolulu Harbor. It's probably the kind of visual uplift that the human soul might need when facing a full-time job contending with some fairly harrowing crimes.

Among the cases coming up in 2011:

» A death-penalty murder trial of Naeem Williams, the Schofield-based Army specialist indicted for first-degree murder in 2006 in the beating death of his 5-year-old daughter.

» The case of Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, arrested in Hawaii this year and accused of lying to the FBI in connection with a jihadist plot.

» The July trial on human trafficking charges involving Thai workers allegedly pressed into labor at Aloun Farms.

» Prosecution of Mordechai Orian, also accused of importing foreign workers.

» The impending sentencing of Maui resident Noshir Gowadia, found guilty of selling military secrets to China.

It's been a busy first 14 months in the office for Nakakuni, 58, but she's anything but a rookie. Her appointment by the Obama administration followed 25 years as an assistant U.S. attorney, preceded by briefer stints in the agency's Washington, D.C., office and the Navy Office of General Counsel at Pearl Harbor.

None of this action was in the original Nakakuni life plan. Growing up in Palolo, she had hoped instead to follow in the career footsteps of Violet Chang, her English teacher at Jarrett Intermediate School. The new University of Hawaii law school offered an alternate track when hiring prospects in education seemed bleak, and Nakakuni found her love of language was an asset in law as well.

And after all these years, Nakakuni views her job as something more grounded than the lofty pursuit of "justice."

"I quickly learned that it's really not about that. It's about how law affects people every day," she said. "And I like that. It made it more relevant for me."

Question: You just got back from D.C., from the conference of the U.S. attorneys. What were the main talking points there?

Answer: Actually, we discussed the priorities for the department, which are things we already know. We got to meet President Obama; it was a very short meeting at the White House. He spoke to us briefly, all 93 of us. And he told us that although he nominated us, that we were not his attorneys, that we were attorneys for the people. ... I think this president gets it that prosecutorial independence is a core principle.

Q: What does the administration see as the main mission?

A: The main priority is public safety and threats to our national security. That's been the No. 1 priority for all of law enforcement since 9/11, obviously. We here have done cases consistent with that. ... Last month, Mr. Shehadeh was arrested here in Honolulu, charged in the eastern district of New York. He's charged with lying to the FBI. I saw the criminal complaint in that case. It was pretty clear that a lot of time and energy and attention went into that case. It was a heck of an effort, but I think that's what it takes to prevent even one person from harming the United States.

Q: How commonly would you expect cases involving espionage to crop up here?

A: I hope it's not common at all. But having said that, obviously every day there are people in the federal government trying to learn where the next threat is going to come from. And it could be from anywhere -- anywhere.

Q: What can you say about the pending human trafficking cases?

A: The civil rights cases are a priority, of course, and we have two criminal cases, the human trafficking cases ... the Aloun Farms case, the Sou brothers, charged with conspiracy regarding Thai agricultural workers. The other one is Mordechai Orian. Both trials are pending for next year. ... A lot of folks are wondering, how come all of a sudden these cases? You'd have to go back to 2000. That was when Congress passed the Trafficking Victim Protection Act. It strengthened the human trafficking laws (with) stiffer penalties and created some new crimes: forced labor; slavery; involuntary servitude; sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion; sex trafficking of children ... The laws are really old; (she picks up a volume) I looked it up. The laws go back to 1948, but in the modern day, a lot of the coercion is things like threats, threats to do something, as opposed to, one person said somewhere, whips and chains ... I read somewhere that every year 18,000 to 20,000 folks are trafficked into the U.S. ... It's hard to believe that in this day and age, in our country, this kind of stuff goes on.

Q: Is there any sign of an increase in this activity? Is it on the rise?

A: I think that's the congressional finding. I've heard the deputy attorney general say this, which is that human trafficking is something that's being done by sophisticated criminal groups around the world, that it's a large profit center for organized crime.

Q: What is the lure for trafficking victims to come to Hawaii? Poverty?

A: I think that is it: the opportunity to come and work and help the family.

Q: What were those first years with the U.S. Attorney's Office like for you?

A: When I came here I had never done any criminal cases in my life, and was fairly young, like 32. So I was all prepped. I went in to see (former U.S. Attorney) Dan Bent, and I said, "Dan, if I never do a criminal case, I'm fine." And he goes, "Good. Next week you're going to second-chair Mike Chun in a tax case. And Mike Chun was someone I knew from Washington, D.C., and he's from here, right? So I said to him, "Dan said I have to help you, but don't worry. I won't be in your way, I'll just sit there and do nothing, absolutely nothing." And he goes, "Oh, no, Dan said you've got to do some witnesses." So I got the least important witnesses and I worked with them for the week; I did that and I liked it. So I told them, "You know, this isn't bad! I could do these occasionally. He said, "Good. In two weeks you're going to do the retrial of three guys charged with counterfeiting." And I'm like, uh, OK. ... That was good, because you just got thrown in. It helped me tremendously, because if I hadn't done that, I probably would have been too scared. It was just, "Here it is -- do it." Because if you ask my law school classmates, I think they would say I was probably one of the least likely to become a prosecutor. I showed no interest whatsoever in going to court, much less being a prosecutor.

Q: Yes, because aren't they the "flyboys" of the legal profession?

A: Yes. And I never even thought of going to law school, actually. I wanted to be a teacher, but in '75, Board of Education wasn't hiring any teachers. And so my counselor says, "What are you going to do?" And I said, "I think I'm going to go for a master's in English." And she's like, "Forget that! You won't have a job in another year or two anyway." But she said, "There's a new law school in the quarry. It's 2 years old -- hopefully it'll be around. But if you get a law degree, you can get a job, most likely." And she said, "It's not too late, you can take the last LSAT and apply for this fall." And I thought, OK. So I did, and I got in.

Q: You've spent so many years in this office. Did you ever contemplate leaving?

A: I never expected to stay as long as I did. I know I stayed because I had the opportunity to do so many different types of cases. I did civil and criminal trials. I handled almost every kind of criminal case that there is to handle in our district. I always found it satisfying to be on the side of justice. It was fun.

Q: You never wanted to jump over to the other side and be a defense attorney?

A: That never occurred to me. ... Once I became U.S Attorney, somebody asked me, "Why did you stay so long?" And I had to think, but it was because of new challenges all the time, doing different cases.

Q: Are there certain types of cases you find especially satisfying?

A: You know, I've done a lot of drug cases, and forfeiture cases related to drugs, and those cases are important. For one thing, in our district, certainly for the last 10 years, if you looked at all the indictments that we file and information that we file, drug cases would constitute the single largest category of cases. And 85 percent of those cases involve meth. Those are cases (where) we prosecute the traffickers; the victims don't come in. Drugs are a serious problem for this community. The other category of cases that I guess resonated, that I liked doing, were the fraud cases I got involved with. That would be the (former United Public Workers state director) Gary Rodrigues case; that was a very tough case; there are aspects of it still going on. ... These cases are tough to investigate, and tough to try. Typically in these fraud cases we make extensive use of subpoenas and the grand jury. And these are powerful investigative tools, if you will. And we use great care and an even hand.

Q: It must take a lot of digging with all these tools to crack these cases.

A: It does.

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