HONOLULU (AP) — To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, the Hawaii attorney general’s office will take over prosecution of protesters arrested for blocking construction of a giant telescope.
Big Island prosecutor Mitch Roth said Wednesday he turned over the cases in response to an Associated Press story highlighting concerns that his son’s employment with a telescope partner is a possible conflict.
His son works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Those who work at that research facility are employed by the California Institute of Technology, a Thirty Meter Telescope partner.
Roth said he doesn’t believe it’s a conflict, but he asked for opinions from the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the county’s ethics board. Roth said his wife’s employment at another Big Island telescope is also not a conflict.
“We want to take the high road in all of this and be as ethical as possible,” he said. “We stand by our earlier position. We don’t believe there is an actual conflict.”
About three dozen mostly elderly protesters were arrested for blocking the road leading to the summit in July. Protesters continue to block access.
Roth, who was elected in 2012 and 2016, said previously he didn’t realize his son, whose work with a NASA Mars rover doesn’t involve the telescope, is a Caltech employee. He said he also wasn’t aware of Caltech’s relationship with the telescope.
Caltech is among a group of universities in California and Canada that make up the telescope company, with partners from China, India and Japan. They want to build the $1.4 billion telescope near the summit of the Big Island’s Mauna Kea, a mountain some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.
Roth asked the attorney general’s office to take over the cases out of an abundance of caution, attorney general spokesman Krishna Jayaram said.
“It is unfortunate that these mere allegations of a conflict became newsworthy, and created an appearance of impropriety resulting in the local prosecutor who most appropriately would prosecute these cases having to send them to our office,” he said. “However, we understand Mr. Roth’s position, and we will be stepping into the role.”
It’s wise for Roth to avoid an appearance of a conflict, said Sonny Ganaden, a lawyer representing three arrested protesters. “In the profession, that’s a thing to be applauded,” he said.
Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the leaders fighting against the telescope, said she’s glad Roth is being cautious but she doesn’t think the attorney general’s office will treat the protesters fairly.