Ethics Board to weigh in on TMT conflict question

  • MITCH ROTH

When your son works for NASA, and your wife works for Subaru Telescope, does that mean you have a conflict of interest if your office prosecutes criminal cases arising from protests over constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea?

That’s the question elected county Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth is asking the county Board of Ethics in a petition scheduled to be heard Wednesday. Petition 2019-07 seeks an advisory opinion from the five-member appointed board.

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Roth last month “conflicted out,” and turned 40 cases involving TMT protesters, who call themselves “kia‘i,” or “protectors,” over to the state attorney general for prosecution. He said Thursday he’s asking for an advisory opinion in case there are future arrests and also to clear the air and “be as transparent as possible,” after questions were raised in an August article by The Associated Press.

“Some people have to be embarrassed because their son is a drug dealer,” Roth said. “I have to be embarrassed because my son works for NASA.”

At issue in the AP article were concerns that Roth’s son’s employment with a telescope partner is a possible conflict. His 22-year-old son, Aaron Roth, works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Those who work at that research facility are employed by the California Institute of Technology, which manages the laboratory.

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 Maunakea, a mountain some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.

Roth, who was elected in 2012 and 2016, told the AP 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.

A copy of the petition provided by Roth Friday expands his disclosure. The AP article mentioned that his wife, Noriko Yamada Roth, works for Subaru Telescope, which has the National Telescope for Japan on Maunakea. Roth said in his petition that her 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 Mauna Kea Management Board, manages the Maunakea Science Reserve, where the mountain’s 13 telescopes are located.

“In part, because of the way the article was written and in part, how it was relayed in other media (radio and social media), there is a local debate on whether there is a conflict or an appearance of impropriety,” Roth said in his petition. “The fact that this has become a topic of local debate has me asking you for a formal opinion.”

The hot-button issue has drawn opinions from all sides.

“How does he not see that there is a conflict of interest? His wife for one is employed at one of the big island telescopes. And his son works with a company that are partners with TMT,” Honolulu resident Wendy Wilson said in an Aug. 29 Facebook post about the AP article. “If you ask me, you ain’t gotta be a rocket scientist to know there’s definitely a conflict of interest!”

State Attorney General Clare Connors hasn’t taken a public position on the matter, although she confirmed to the AP she told Roth the connection is too far removed to pose a conflict.

Roth also sought an opinion from the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, a state office that handles complaints against Hawaii lawyers. The office couldn’t provide him a formal opinion, he said, but gave him citations of state law covering conflicts of interest. Roth said reading the law led him to the conclusion he has no conflict.

“Further, prior to the news story, I would say that there wasn’t even the appearance of impropriety,” he said in the petition. “However, the way that the story was portrayed and the debates that followed may have created an appearance of impropriety for me to handle these cases.”

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.”

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At the same time, Roth noted, “The (county) charter says I shall prosecute cases.”

The Board of Ethics meets at 10 a.m. Wednesday in County Council chambers in Hilo. The public can testify at the beginning of the meeting about agenda items.

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