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A Hawaiian sovereignty activist settles with the feds

The Honolulu Weekly
September 17 - 23, 1997

By Naomi Sodetani

In a stunning example of the art of compromise, Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele and the United States of America have decided not to slug it out, but to tango.

Last Friday, Sept. 12, Kanahele pleaded guilty to the felony charge of blocking a deputy U.S. marshal's efforts to arrest a federal fugitive in 1994. In return, the United States dismissed two other counts against him.

Kanahele, 43, will now face a prison term of as long as three years at his Jan. 12 sentencing. But in the best-case scenario he may face as little as four months--the time he spent behind bars in 1995 while awaiting trial.

The native Hawaiian activist's guilty plea cancels his retrial, which would have begun Sept. 16. It also draws the curtain on two years' worth of posturing between idealogically-opposed parties.

U.S. Attorney Steven Alm's offer of the plea agreement as a way to resolve the case was notably conciliatory, in light of his office's dogged prosecution efforts since 1995. His "victory" remarks were also tame. "I'm very pleased that Mr. Kanahele has chosen to take responsibility for his actions. The law applies to everyone."

Apparently, even to the rough-and-ready leader of the Nation of Hawai'i sovereignty faction.

Since his arrest, Kanahele had contended that the United States had no lawful jurisdiction over him. But last week, a subdued Kanahele explained his decision to negotiate with the federal authorities as "the right thing to do."

Federal prosecutors made no plea agreement with Kanahele's co-defendant Gordon Kaaihue, whose trial on a misdemeanor charge began as scheduled on Sept. 16.   [Note: Kaaihue was acquitted on Sept. 17, 1997]

The Sept. 12 hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Helen Gillmor contrasted starkly to the activist's first trial in October 1995, which featured heated verbal clashes between Gillmor and Kanahele's former lawyer, Hayden Aluli. The judge had refused to consider the sovereignty and selective prosecution issues which Aluli raised. In December 1995, Gillmor declared a mistrial during jury deliberations, raising concerns about possible jury tampering and improper conduct by a juror.

Kanahele was indicted Aug. 2, 1995 with Gordon Kaaihue on charges of interfering with Honolulu police officers who attempted to arrest federal fugitive Nathan Brown in January 1994. Kanahele was also accused of harboring Brown and obstructing a U.S. marshal's attempt to arrest him two months later.

A member of the Nation of Hawai'i, Brown had been convicted in 1991 on 18 felony counts, stemming from a scheme in which members of a group called the Royal Kingdom of Hawaii filed false tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service, claiming they had paid thousands of dollars to public officials, including then-Governor John Waihee.

After losing on appeal, Brown failed to show up to begin serving his 6 1/2-year sentence. He is still being sought by federal authorities.

Kanahele has admitted that Nathan Brown was in the car with him when he drove to his Waimanalo homestead house on March 16, 1994 at about 12:30 a.m.

When plainclothes federal marshals approached the pair, Brown ran across the yard while Kanahele closed the gate to keep them away from his home and asked, "Who the hell are you?"

Last week Kanahele told Gillmor he made "physical contact" with deputy U.S. marshal Lawrence Tice at the gate, while Assistant U.S. Attorney Les Osborne said that Kanahele "collided" with the deputy and only let him in when someone at the house said that Brown was no longer there.

On August 2, 1995, U.S. marshals arrested Kanahele at the Honolulu Airport while he was on a flight between islands. Pending his trial, Kanahele was held without bail at Halawa Correctional Facility for nearly four months.

"I'm here for one reason," the activist said at the time. "I'm a political prisoner."

A public outcry ensued, accusing the feds of using trumped-up charges as a way to control the charismatic leader and send a cautionary message to other activists.

While awaiting trial, in fact, Kanahele has been tethered to a long list of bail release conditions which have curtailed his mobility and activities. These include strict curfew and travel prohibitions which prevent Kanahele from visiting the Nation of Hawai'i's Pu'uhonua o Waimanalo Village--or even Waimanalo itself.

Perhaps most symbolic of Kanahele's "house arrest" is an electronic monitoring anklet which he must wear. The device lets the feds know exactly where the activist is 24 hours a day.

The bail release conditions are necessary to deter flight risk and for public safety, says Assistant U.S. Attorney Les Osborne. Citing the activist's prior arrests, including a prior felony conviction stemming from the eviction of native Hawaiians who occupied the Makapuu Lighthouse in 1987, Osborne describes Kanahele as "a danger to the community."

Despite the bail restrictions, Kanahele has participated as a board member of the Waimanalo Health Center and Waimanalo Neighborhood boards under exemptions granted by the court.

On Sept. 15, Kanahele's new attorney, Michael Jay Green, moved for an immediate easing of the restrictions. "Mr. Kanahele should be able to go to his neighborhood store and buy a bag of groceries," Green said.

Kanahele says he didn't cut the deal for domestic reasons, and he admits to some ambivalence. "My ego was telling me: Fight em, you get chance," he says. But facing the same judge "with the same biases was a set-up to lose."

Ultimately, the specter of a minimum term of six and a half years in federal prison for the harboring offense made the U.S. Attorney's offer one he could not refuse.

"Like everything else, it's a learning process," he said. "I did what I did. But my beliefs and what I did is two different things. It doesn't stop what I believe in."

Kanahele now wants to "put it all behind us and move on to other things."

As far as sovereignty, he sees "the coming years [as] critical for the movement. I'm ready to go to work."

If Kanahele's motivation behind the detente is clear enough, Alm's is less so. Even as the media focuses on how glad Kanahele is that his long court fight with the feds is over, disturbing questions remain.

Was there concern that Green, a well-known attorney who has represented the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, and who has practiced criminal law in 20 states, would expose uncomfortable flaws in their case--as Aluli's sovereignty-related arguments could not? Or did the backlash of public opinion simply outweigh the benefit of reining in a political dissident?

Alm may well hope the plea agreement will neutralize further speculation of any sort. At a post-hearing press conference, he acknowledged that "there was a certain amount of talk... that the fact that [Kanahele] was involved in the sovereignty movement had something to do with the indictment."

His parting words: "I think his guilty plea today certainly puts that to rest."

For now, Kanahele and the feds can take a breather. And save the real slugfest--over sovereignty--for another day.

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