State is seeking information about those who provided support to TMT protesters

  • Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors speaks during a news conference in 2019 in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

Lawyers for opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope filed a petition Friday seeking to reverse a January court decision that would allow the state attorney general to subpoena the financial records of a nonprofit providing funding for TMT protesters.

In late January, the attorney general’s office was authorized by a state judge to subpoena the bank records of KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for environmental issues in Hawaii.

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Attorney General Clare Connors claimed that subpoena was warranted because KAHEA was supporting illegal protests by establishing a fund for the protesters on Maunakea, and had also misfiled financial statements.

On Friday, attorneys for a group of anonymous donors to KAHEA filed a petition to the Hawaii Supreme Court requesting that the court rescind the state’s order allowing Connors to subpoena KAHEA’s records, arguing that such a subpoena would reveal the donors’ identities and violate their rights to privacy.

“From our clients’ perspective, it’s clear that this is an unwarranted attack on their privacy,” said one of the donors’ lawyers, Maui attorney Lance Collins.

Collins said the attempted subpoena is a clear attempt to intimidate opponents state-supported projects, which sent state officers to clear the Maunakea Access Road last July after protesters blocked the road in protest of the construction of TMT.

“It’s not the first time a state has tried to do this,” Collins said, citing the 1958 Supreme Court Case NAACP v. Alabama, wherein the state of Alabama attempted to subpoena the records of the African-American civil rights organization NAACP, including a list of its members in Alabama.

“It’s just a shame that the person trying to do it now is the Attorney General of Hawaii,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Alabama in 1958, citing the right to privacy of law-abiding citizens.

Connors also issued a subpoena to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for similar reasons in September, and also to Hawaiian Airlines to determine the identities of people who donated frequent flyer miles to protesters, although the latter subpoena was withdrawn.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii issued a statement in January expressing concern that the attorney general’s office is abusing its power and that such actions have a “chilling effect on everyone’s rights.”

Collins said the state Supreme Court can dismiss or deny the petition in the KAHEA case, or can allow it to go through, which will require both sides to attend hearings to resolve the issue. However, before that decision can be made, the court also needs to decide whether Connors or First Circuit Judge James Ashford, who approved the subpoena, should respond to it.

“Generally, I think it’s unconscionable,” said protest leader Noe Noe Wong-Wilson. “It just seems like a strange way to go about it.”

Wong-Wilson said KAHEA has been very supportive of the anti-TMT protests in accordance to its mission of social justice for Native Hawaiians.

The subpoena also corresponds with a bill currently passing through the state Senate that would block such investigations.

Senate Bill 42, which was introduced last year by Maui, Molokai and Lanai Sen. Kalani English, would prohibit the attorney general from conducting investigations “in connection with and under circumstances during a period of time in which it is clear that the attorney general’s goals are conflicted with native Hawaiian rights.”

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SB 42 has received passionate support and opposition, Wong-Wilson said, and has passed through at least one committee this legislative session.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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