Legal challenges filed against TMT hearings officer - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Legal challenges filed against TMT hearings officer

(Image: Riki May Amano/file) (Image: Riki May Amano/file)
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Riki May Amano served as a judge on the Big Island for more than a decade where she built up a reputation for fairness. But now, the Hilo native's impartiality has come under heavy criticism by native Hawaiian opponents of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project. They want her removed as the hearings officer on the controversial project.

"We think that it's at least an appearance of a conflict and that this case needs to have full impartiality and fairness," said Richard Wurdeman, attorney for Mauna Kea Anaina Hou.

Wurdeman and others pointed out that Amano and her husband, Donald Amano, are dues-paying member of the Imiloa Astronomy Center. Once called the Mauna Kea Astronomy Education Center, the Imiloa Center is the $28 million dollar exhibition and planetarium complex that supports research being done on Mauna Kea. That center is part of the University of Hawaii Hilo, which is a party to the case.

Abigail Kawananakoa, who has has appeared in the Hawaii Supreme Court as a friend of the court opposing TMT, issued this statement today: "To ignore Amano's bias is yet another egregious violation of public trust. TMT should take note of what lengths the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Attorney General will go to," she said. "The defenders of Mauna Kea are vigilant and prepared. We are resolute. It's time for TMT to move on."

The DLNR, which hired Amano for the contested case hearings, declined comment. Amano also declined to respond. But in her disclosure with the state, she made no reference to her membership in the Imiloa Center. 

Legal experts said that the cannons of judicial ethics require that Amano disclose that relationship. They also said her job description requires that she have "no conflict of interest or appearance of conflict." "It's very important that there isn't even an appearance of a conflict or bias of on the part of a judge because that alone can damage the validity of the outcome of the proceedings," said attorney Victor Bakke.

Amano's contract says she began working for the state on March 30 but a copy of her contract that was released to Hawaii News Now has all the compensation numbers blacked out.

DLNR officials said they would not say how much she's being paid because it would jeopardize negotiations with other candidates if she is removed due to the legal challenges. In her capacity as a mediator in the private sector, Amano charges $400 an hour.

"We have heard from reliable sources that the Attorney General has been actively soliciting hearing officers or potential hearings officer that might actively fit the profile," said Wurdeman. "There's obviously a lot of pressure we believe coming from the administration and this may be a reason for the board rushing the process."

This is not the first time that the impartiality of a DLNR hearings officer on a controversial telescope project has been called into question. Last June, Hawaii News Now reported that the hearings officer in the Haleakala Telescope contested case received more than $100,000 in legal work from the University of Hawaii, two years after he issued the green light for the controversial, $300 million Maui project. UH is the prime mover behind The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on Maui.

That hearings officer, attorney Lane Ishida, had never done work for the UH prior to serving as the hearings officer for the Haleakala case. UH officials said Ishida was properly hired and that no ethics rules were violated. But native Hawaiians said it looked like a payoff.

"We need an open process. We need the public to be fully engaged and fully informed and that hasn't been done yet," Wurdeman said.

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