An FBI investigator was targeted by two search warrants as part of an ongoing criminal probe linked to the federal criminal charges against former Honolulu business owner Michael J. Miske Jr., who prosecutors allege controlled and directed a sprawling racketeering organization for most of the past two decades.
New information gleaned from court records in the Miske case reveals a part of the investigation that until now had not been publicly known.
Issuance of the search warrants show a law enforcement officer convinced a judge there was “probable cause” that a crime had been or was being committed, and that evidence of that crime was likely to be found during the requested searches.
The affidavit in a case like this draws on the officer’s own knowledge and experience, as well as an array of investigative records at their disposal. The result is essentially a roadmap that summarizes the much larger amount of underlying evidence available to investigators at the time, as well as the current theory of the case.
As recently as September, federal prosecutors advised U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson, who is presiding over the Miske case, that the two warrants are part of a continuing investigation and requested the files remain sealed and publicly unavailable.
After conducting “a thorough line-by-line, document-by document review,” Watson agreed, determined the two warrants “involve ongoing, pre-indictment criminal investigations,” and in an Oct. 20 order, directed the court files should remain under seal.
The initial search warrant, dated during 2019, authorized access to the digital contents associated with the investigator’s gmail account, and a second search warrant the following year was issued for the premises at a Honolulu street address that appears to be his residence.
Exactly what suspected crimes are alleged to have prompted the searches, what evidence was relied on to demonstrate probable cause to the satisfaction of a judge, and what, if any, evidence was seized, remain confidential.
These two search warrants stand out because they were brought against one of the FBI’s own employees, they involve an ongoing but previously undisclosed criminal investigation, and because they are the only two among a larger set of warrants recently reviewed by Watson to remain entirely sealed.
They are reported here publicly for the first time.
Eliot Enoki, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Honolulu, declined to comment.
A broad protective order in place since the beginning of the Miske case prevents others involved in the case, including attorneys on all sides, from disclosing information produced during discovery to anyone not directly involved in the Miske case, making it difficult to obtain additional comments from those involved.
Civil Beat has chosen not to identify the name of the investigator, who is no longer employed by the FBI, because he has no criminal record, no charges have been filed in the three years since the first search warrant was executed, and a search warrant in itself is not a finding of guilt.
The trial of Miske and six co-defendants is scheduled to begin in April. The charges in the 22-count indictment include racketeering conspiracy, murder-for-hire, kidnapping, assault in aid of racketeering, drug trafficking, weapons offenses, and bank fraud.
Six other co-defendants have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with prosecutors, along with at least eight others who were charged separately and have admitted being members or associates of the Miske organization.
Although the warrants are sealed, their existence came to light when the file numbers assigned to the cases, along with the name of the targeted FBI employee, were included in a list of 70 search warrants issued between 2015 and 2020 that had been disclosed to the defendants and their attorneys in discovery.
Discovery is a required pretrial process in which most evidence that led to the criminal charges must be disclosed in order to allow attorneys representing each defendant to know the basis of the government’s case and prepare an effective trial defense.
The inventory list became public when it was later included among a dozen exhibits supporting a legal motion filed in court by Miske’s attorneys in early May.
The subject’s position with the FBI was not disclosed in that inventory list, but was part of his employment profile on LinkedIn.com, the online professional networking system. It showed he had been an “Investigative Specialist” with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a job category that “performs both fixed and mobile surveillance tasks” in anti-crime, counterterrorism, and counterintelligence operations, and the employee does not have to be an FBI agent to qualify for the job, according to a Department of Justice job description.
The listed FBI employment continued through 2019 and 2020, the time period during which the warrants were obtained and executed. The subject subsequently left the agency and is now employed elsewhere, according to the LinkedIn profile. There is no indication whether his change in employment was related to the search warrants.
Although little of the underlying evidence backing up the criminal charges against Miske and his co-defendants has been made public, a significant window into the evidence has been opened by dozens of search warrants and associated files made public in whole or in part following a recent review by Watson.
Watson’s review and eventual decision to open most of the search warrant cases to public view was the result of a legal motion filed in June by Brian Black, executive director for the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, a nonprofit law firm that takes legal action in support of the notion that “open government is a cornerstone of democracy and critical to an informed electorate.”
An extended dispute between Miske’s attorneys and prosecutors over the pace and completeness of the government’s release of evidence in discovery, stretching over a number of months and several court hearings, alerted Black to the sealed warrants.
“I saw there were all these filings that mentioned search warrants, but when I tried to look for them in court records, they weren’t available,” Black said Friday. “In general, search warrants are supposed to be public.”
In June, Black filed a motion arguing the public’s constitutional and traditional right of access to court proceedings and records has created “a strong presumption of public access under the First Amendment,” and as a result the warrants should be unsealed.
The law center’s motion recognized that while search warrants are typically withheld from the public so that targets of an investigation aren’t tipped off in time to destroy evidence, threaten witnesses or flee, once indictments have been filed, the defendants have access to the warrants through discovery, leaving only the public in the dark without a compelling reason.
The challenge led Watson to undertake a review of about 70 search warrant cases that had been identified, each of these cases containing the initial application, the supporting affidavit, the warrant, sometimes an order directing that the warrant not be disclosed to the subject, and then a return receipt indicating what items or information were actually seized.
In an initial July 11 ruling, Watson sidestepped the various constitutional and common law issues raised and instead cited a local court rule requiring search warrants in any criminal matter to be unsealed after one year unless the government files a motion justifying an extension of the initial sealing order.
Watson then gave prosecutors 60 days to oppose unsealing any of the documents by providing “the specific factual basis for continuing the seal.”
“Generalized or conclusory explanations will not be sufficient,” Watson’s order provided. “Any such statement should detail, among other things, (1) whether the case involves a person or persons under indictment, (2) whether the case involves an investigation that is ongoing or completed, (3) in any case where an investigation is ongoing, the person(s) subject to the investigation and the nature and status of the investigation, and (4) any other information pertinent to overcoming the “strong presumption in favor of access.”
“The government had the opportunity to raise objects, as did the other defendants,” Black said.
There were some objections to disclosing the names of witnesses, he said.
“But when you look at these affidavits, to the extent there are confidential sources, they are not referenced by name,” Black said. “They are referenced by “CI”, for confidential informant, or “CW”, for cooperating witness, without mentioned the individual’s names.”
In the minority of cases where the government raised valid concerns, Watson allowing selected documents to remain sealed, and in other cases suggested redactions to remove the names of witnesses or similar sensitive information, protecting the government’s interests as well as the public interest in transparency of court proceedings.
When Watson’s review was completed, the files of 47 search warrants were completely unsealed. Another 21 cases were unsealed in part, either by leaving selected documents under seal, or by redacting sensitive information. Watson also ordered that the cases be reviewed every six months “addressing whether the above documents should remain redacted, as filed, and, if so, the reasons why.”
Only two of the original 70 search warrant files remain sealed in their entirety.
And those are the two files relating to warrants in the investigation of the former FBI employee.
The search warrant files unsealed to date have provided previously unknown details about several aspects of the charges against Miske, his co-defendants and associates, and have provided the basis for several Civil Beat stories in recent months.
There’s no way of knowing how extensive this ongoing investigation is or what it might become, but in such operations, one thing can easily lead to another, eventually becoming something big.
For example, one such investigation began in 2004, with the discovery that an FBI data technician in the Honolulu organized crime and drug unit had accessed FBI computers in an attempt to warn her husband to stay away from friends who were part of a North Shore drug ring. Her husband passed the information to his friends and helped them stay ahead of law enforcement actions.
That investigation expanded with the discovery that several Honolulu police officers were protecting an illegal Waialua gambling business that offered dice and card games as well as cockfights.
A two-year federal investigation led to charges against more than 35 people, including the FBI technician and her husband, five Honolulu police officers, a Honolulu liquor commission inspector, and the head of security for Aloha Stadium, along with members of the drug gang and operators of the gambling business, according to news stories at the time.
In addition, thousands of pages of FBI wiretap transcripts were then handed over to HPD, leading to what was described as “a massive internal investigation” which resulted in disciplinary action taken against an unknown number of officers.