Judge won’t recuse self from Sheehan case

LIHUE — Former Hanalei boatyard owner Michael Sheehan’s civil action alleging former neighbors built un-permitted structures that caused environmental damage will move forward with the same judge in 5th Circuit Court.

Judge Kathleen Watanabe on Wednesday denied a plaintiff’s motion to recuse herself as presiding judge in the case. The motion was a conflict of interest claim because Watanabe served as a county attorney and deputy county attorney from 1990 to 1994.

Sheehan was not present. His attorney Richard Wilson argued the motion. He said the defendants, Hermina Morita and Lance Laney, were permitted by the county with approval from the Board of Land and Natural Resources to rebuild their Hanalei home following Hurricane Iniki in 1992. He alleges that a second structure built without BLNR approval was permitted by the county while Morita served on the Planning Commission and while Watanabe was the county attorney.

Watanabe will continue to preside over Sheehan’s case against Morita and Laney. Sheehan claims the neighbors misused their property to cause pollution, flooding and other problems within the State Land Use Conservation District Protective Subzone in Hanalei.

In May, the Department of Land and Natural Resources fined Morita and Laney $31,000 for building and operating Taro Patch Hale bed and breakfast on protected lands without permission or proper permits, and ordered them to tear down existing structures.

Howard Bronstein, the attorney representing Morita, the state’s Public Utility Commission chairwoman, and Laney, spoke against the motion to recuse. He said Watanabe’s liability in her professional capacity ended when she left her position as county attorney.

Deputy County Attorney Ian Jung said the defense was essentially motioning the court to reconsider its ruling to dismiss two charges that removed the county as a defendant in the case on Sept. 24.

At that hearing, Watanabe denied there was a conflict of interest and said it would be easy for the court to recuse itself out of the appearance of conflict. However, she said the court could preside and offer “impartial and unbiased” judgment.

If there were new evidence to present, it would still not rise to the level of a recusal, Jung added.

Sheehan’s argument that the county Department of Planning and the office of the county attorney were complicit in granting permits for a second dwelling are not valid, he said. The records show the permits followed the standard process for single dwellings and did not result in secondary reviews to imply complicit approval of a second unit by managers or outside departments.

On a third point, Jung said the allegations that the county was complicit in allowing Morita and Laney a Class C zoning permit to build a second dwelling and cesspool was a conspiratorial “wild herring.” The BLNR is the enforcement authority within the protective subzone, he added.


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