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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 6, 2009

FBI probed judge in Pali trial

By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer

The FBI targeted state criminal court Judge Michael Town for investigation of possible corruption in 2004, according to a document that was unsealed yesterday in the racketeering and murder trial of Ethan "Malu" Motta, and Rodney Joseph Jr.

Town was never charged with a crime, and prosecution and defense lawyers late yesterday privately expressed shock that such an investigation was ever undertaken.

Town would not comment on the matter when contacted by The Advertiser this week. He said through his law clerk that the state Code of Judicial Ethics prevented him from commenting.

Town presided over the murder case of Motta, Joseph and Kevin "Pancho" Gonsalves when it was being actively prosecuted in state court from 2004 to 2006. Over the protests of prosecutors, he made a series of rulings about Motta's bail status in the state case that are referenced in a secret FBI informant tape-recording that was unsealed in federal court yesterday.

Town ordered Joseph and Gonsalves held without bail after they were arrested in connection with the underworld murders of two men at the Pali Golf Course Jan. 7, 2004.

But Town, noting that Motta had no record of criminal convictions, set his bail at $1 million, initially requiring that the money be posted in cash rather than in a bail surety bond.

Town allowed Motta in March 2004 to post $1 million bail and denied a prosecution request that Motta be required to disclose the source of the money used to secure the bail bond.

Town in August 2004 rejected a prosecution motion to revoke Motta's bail because he had violated curfew and allegedly beaten up a man at a Big Island wedding party June 26, 2004. The judge did require that Motta stay under house arrest at his mother's home for the next 30 days because of the curfew violation.

Motta remained trouble free after that. In 2006, the federal government took over the Pali case, charging Motta, Joseph and Gonsalves with racketeering crimes of murder, robbery and extortion. Motta and Joseph have been held without bail by federal authorities since then. Gonsalves pleaded guilty in the case and is serving a 27 1/2-year prison sentence.

Town's Motta bail rulings apparently prompted FBI interest in the judge, because agents sent an informant to tape record a conversation with Motta on Oct. 30, 2004, in which the informant repeatedly questioned Town's integrity, at one point suggesting that the judge had been "paid off."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Brady, prosecutor in the Pali case, said the tape was made as part of an FBI investigation into drugs, gambling and other crimes unrelated to the Pali murders.

Joseph's defense lawyer, Reginald Minn, said earlier in the trial he believed the tape recording was aimed specifically at Town because informant Jonnaven Monalim brought the subject up over and over again.

Motta never implicated the judge in any impropriety and told the informant, "I gotta respect Judge Town."

Motta testified yesterday that Town is "man of true integrity."

Monalim, cousin of both Motta and Joseph, took the witness stand late yesterday afternoon and said he had agreed to become an FBI informant in February 2004.

Jurors listened to the tape recording and followed along with a transcript of the conversation prepared by the government.

Earlier in the day, jurors listened to the same 45-minute recording but used a different transcript, prepared by Motta and his defense lawyers.

Copies of the transcripts have not been made public and the audio quality of the tape is poor and difficult to understand.

The conversation was taped after a party to raise funds for Motta's legal defense was held on the Big Island. Tickets to the event cost $100 apiece and Monalim said he bought $1,000 worth with cash supplied to him by the FBI.

U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway originally ordered that sections of the tape recording referring to Town be removed from the tape and transcript, saying the allegations were "extremely serious but unproven."

When the tape was used as rebuttal evidence against Motta yesterday, Mollway ordered that the redacted sections be restored.

Reach Jim Dooley at jdooley@honoluluadvertiser.com.