HONOLULU — The man responsible for prosecuting the mostly Native Hawaiian elders arrested for protesting construction of a giant telescope said there is no conflict of interest, even though his son works for one of the embattled project’s partners.
Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth’s 22-year-old son, Aaron, works at NASA’s federally funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed by the California Institute of Technology, one of the Thirty Meter Telescope’s partners. Everyone who works at the research facility is a Caltech employee, said Caltech spokeswoman Deborah Williams-Hedges.
The Hawaii attorney general has not taken an official position on whether it constitutes a conflict of interest. But legal experts, including a University of Hawaii law school instructor who has also protested against construction of the telescope, said Roth should step aside to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
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 Maunakea, a mountain some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.
Last month, about three dozen mostly elderly protesters were arrested for blocking the road leading to the summit. A group of them pleaded not guilty last week, and the cases are ongoing. Protesters continue to block access.
Roth, who was elected in 2012 and 2016, said 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.
Retired Honolulu attorney Jim Wright, who is not involved with the telescope, said he was concerned about a possible conflict after reading a Big Island newspaper article about Aaron Roth’s employment, which was posted on a pro-telescope group’s website.
In an email exchange with Wright and provided to The Associated Press, Roth said there is no conflict.
“However, even though he works for JPL, the connection is so far removed, I do not believe that this would be a conflict,” Roth wrote to Wright. “I have checked with various people and have not been able to get anyone to agree with your assessment.”
Roth said state Attorney General Clare Connors told him she thinks his son’s relationship is too far removed to pose a conflict. Krishna Jayaram, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the conversation between Roth and Connors “was an informal one between colleagues and our office did not render any advice to him,” but confirmed that Roth’s description of the conversation is accurate.
The office has no comment on whether it’s a conflict, Jayaram said.
“I trust Mitch in regards to making sure those things are not in conflict,” Big Island Mayor Harry Kim said.
Roth said his wife’s employment at another Big Island telescope is also not a conflict.
It’s clearly is a conflict, said William Bailey, a University of Washington law school professor. “If there’s a personal connection of any kind, you shouldn’t participate,” he said. “We want government decisions to inspire trust, that this was part of a fair process. This doesn’t pass this test — with the wife’s connection on top of it. You want it free from any taint of bias.”
A former prosecutor on another island where a solar telescope has also prompted protester arrests said he doesn’t see a conflict because Roth doesn’t personally gain.
“There’s no pecuniary interest,” said J.D. Kim, who was Maui’s prosecuting attorney. However, Kim said that to avoid the appearance of impropriety, Roth could ask the attorney general’s office to prosecute the cases or ask for an official opinion.
“I think because of how big of an issue this is in our state, it would be prudent for him to appoint special counsel,” said Kenneth Lawson, who teaches at the University of Hawaii’s law school and has joined protesters on Maunakea. “I know Mitch. He’s a fair and progressive prosecutor.”
In 2015, before his son was employed by Caltech, Roth dismissed charges against about 10 out of 31 protesters who were arrested during a previous attempt to resume construction at Maunakea. There were some convictions and some dismissals, Roth recalled, adding that a subsequent court decision has negated the defense that led to the dismissals. He’s also called for hooponopono, a Hawaiian culture-based form of mediation, as an alternative to trial for some of the 2015 cases, but state officials declined to participate.