HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The University of Hawaii has spent nearly $3 million in legal fees on its controversial effort to build the world's largest telescope on Hawaii island's Mauna Kea summit.
UH said the legal bill is less than one-half of one percent of the total cost of the project that's expected to cost $1.3 billion to build. So UH officials said the legal fees have been a "worthwhile investment."
Last month, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources gave its approval for the Thirty Meter Telescope project to be built at the volcano's summit, on land leased by the University of Hawaii.
The project had been opposed by Native Hawaiian groups and environmentalists, resulting in a contested-case hearing before the land board.
UH hired the law firm Carlsmith Ball and has so far paid them $2.9 million for legal services on the telescope project. That's money spent over five years, since 2008, a year before UH President MRC Greenwood was hired.
Barry Taniguchi, owner of KTA Superstores on the Big Island, is the former chair of UH's Mauna Kea Management board. He has been involved in the project for 12 years.
"Legal services are needed because this is a very complex project. It's a billion-dollar project. It involves issues in the environment, it involves issues in cultural, zoning," Taniguchi said. "Too many times, a project is killed because someone screwed up on process. We wanted to make sure that the processes were all met and we just needed a great legal team to do that."
State Senate President Donna Kim (D-Kapalama, Kalihi Valley, Moanalua), who asked UH officials for the legal fee totals, said, "It seems a little excessive, in my opinion."
Kim is asking UH for detailed explanations of the legal bills. She wants to know why the university's six in-house lawyers couldn't handle some of the work.
"If we have to go outside every time and hire an outside attorney, then exactly why do we need so many in-house attorneys?" Kim asked.
UH said in-house lawyers worked on the telescope project at the beginning, but it soon became apparent the university needed special expertise not available in its legal department.
Taniguchi compared the university's in-house lawyers to general practitioner physicians.
"Would you go to a general practitioner to get work done on your heart for example, or would you go to a cardiologist?" Taniguchi asked.
UH said the biggest legal cost paid so far, $1.1 million, was for the law firm to represent UH on its Conservation District Use Application before the BLNR, which included successfully fighting the case brought against UH by environmentalists and native Hawaiians trying to stop the project. The next largest cost, about $1 million, covered implementation and compliance of a comprehensive management plan required by the land board, which includes plans for cultural and natural resources management, public access and decommissioning the site, UH said.
The lawyers also prepared an environmental impact statement (costing $390,643) and were paid another $60,497 to create administrative rules for use of the volcano. Finally, the UH spent another $271,513 for what UH said was "high-level comprehensive coordination with the Big Island constituents for all aspects of the project at the Board (of Regents) level."
Legal fees paid directly for outside counsel work on the telescope have totaled $2.4 million since the fall of 2008, UH said. The UH paid the Carlsmith firm another $437,655 for consultants and expenses to help with the project, as well as $101,437 in excise taxes, UH said.
UH officials said they had spent up to their current ceiling on the attorney contract. "We are in discussions about additional work to be done if needed," said a UH spokeswoman by email, indicating the lawyers' bills could grow.
But Kim, who has questioned UH spending on outside lawyers, consultants and public relations people since the Stevie Wonder blunder last year, said UH officials have told her they have exceeded their ceiling by nearly $2 million. The legal contract started with a cap of $300,000, Kim said, which was later increased to $600,000 and then to $860,000, but has not been increased further, even though the bills total $2.9 million.
"The fact that we're looking into it doesn't necessarily mean that there was any wrongdoing" Kim said. "But again, it's the issue of how freely we spend our tuition dollars on a number of these projects and problems."
"When you talk about a billion-dollar project, it was a lot of money, but I think the money needed to be spent so that we could make sure that all the processes were met," Taniguchi said.
The telescope would be able to observe planets that orbit stars other than the sun and enable astronomers to watch new plants and stars being formed. It should also help scientists see some 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe.
Some Native Hawaiian groups had petitioned against the project, arguing it would defile the mountain's sacred summit. In the past, only high chiefs and priests were allowed at Mauna Kea's summit, because Native Hawaiian tradition holds that high altitudes are sacred and a gateway to heaven.
Environmentalists also petitioned to stop the telescope on the grounds it would harm habitat for the rare wekiu bug.
The Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the project April 12, but imposed two dozen conditions including a requirement that employees be trained in cultural and natural resources.
The University of California system, the California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy are spearheading the telescope. China, India and Japan have signed on to be partners. The universities will now negotiate a sublease with UH for the land. UH officials could not offer an estimate of how much money such a sublease would bring in annually.
Mauna Kea's peak is already home to about a dozen telescopes.
The dormant volcano is popular with astronomers because its summit is well above the clouds and offers a clear view of the sky about 300 days a year.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)