HILO — Mitch Roth does not have a conflict of interest prosecuting cases from the standoff on Maunakea, but he should remove himself from any involvement in the cases to allay public concerns, the county Board of Ethics said Wednesday.
The board, acting on the matter brought to its attention by Roth, voted unanimously there was no conflict. Still, said board member David Wiseman, Roth should put up a barrier between himself and his office on the cases “in the interest of prudence and maintaining the public’s confidence in the system of government.”
Roth had turned 30 cases over to the state attorney general pending the board decision. Those arrested were charged with obstructing a governmental operation, a misdemeanor.
The protesters, who call themselves “kia’i,” or “protectors,” of the mountain, have blocked Mauna Kea Access Road since mid-July to prevent equipment from going to the proposed construction site of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Protesters object primarily on environmental and religious grounds.
Although the land is controlled by the state, it’s still the county’s responsibility to prosecute cases there under the county charter, Roth said.
Roth said Wednesday it costs the county a lot of money to have prosecutors flying in from Honolulu. He said he could turn cases over to his chief deputy and stay away from the cases to accomplish the same noninterference.
“I wouldn’t have any influence on the deputy. … It was never the intent that I would go in court and prosecute these cases,” Roth said, adding his office handles 17,000 cases a year. “I give my deputies a lot of discretion.”
Roth divested himself of the cases and asked for the opinion after The Associated Press wrote an article questioning his personal connections.
At issue is the employment of Roth’s 22-year-old son at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, administered by the California Institute of Technology, and Roth’s wife’s employment at Subaru Telescope, operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. The two organizations are among six partners in the Thirty Meter Telescope project.
In addition, Roth’s wife’s employer is the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii, which is attached to the university for administrative purposes. The university, through its master plan and its appointed Maunakea Management Board, manages the Maunakea Science Reserve, where the mountain’s 13 telescopes are located.
Also, Roth said, he’s on the board for The Success Factory’s NexTech STEM Programs, which received a grant from TMT’s THINK fund, that donates $1 million annually for science, technology, engineering and math programs for youth.
Section 2-84 of the county ethics code states, “No officer or employee shall take any official action directly affecting … a business or undertaking in which the employee knows or has reason to know that a brother, a sister, a parent, an emancipated child or a household member has a substantial financial interest.”