Last week, Hawaii Circuit Judge James Ashford temporarily denied a request by the nonprofit organization KAHEA: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance to fully quash efforts by Clare Connors, the state attorney general, to subpoena bank records of the organization.

Connors’ subpoena included 18 separate requests for information regarding the nonprofit currently held by its bank, First Hawaiian Bank, which was as far-reaching as reviewing surveillance photos taken from ATMs.

When it comes to the Thirty Meter Telescope, the state’s various shows of force have never been productive nor have they ever produced the results the state seemed to be seeking. Rather, time and time again we have seen how the Ige administration’s efforts only sought to alienate supporters and turn public opinion against the project, as evidenced by last year’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll which saw a dramatic loss of support for the TMT.

As attorney general, Clare Connors has been a key player in the state’s standoff with Mauna Kea protesters. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2019

What is perhaps most alarming about the recent developments, which have been met with considerable criticism, is that they come during a period when both sides have mutually agreed to stand down. The tenuous truce between the kia’i, or protectors, and the state represented the first time since the conflict erupted last July that both sides seemed willing to take some time to cool down. The hope was that this period would lead to mediation and negotiation that would engender a way forward.

The attorney general’s actions were an alarming violation of any good faith and good will being demonstrated by the state. It sends a clear message that the governor cannot be taken at his word to stand down when he commits to do so.

Most alarming is the attorney general’s targeting of a nonprofit organization that has been a critical force for conservation for decades. Originally founded by Kumu Hula Vicky Holt Takamine and environmental activist Cha Smith, KAHEA has long spearheaded environmental causes that have had a lasting positive impact on the well-being of the islands. (The word “kahea” means “to call” in Hawaiian.)

To name just two examples of their important work, in 2005, KAHEA helped to pass the Legacy Lands Act, which has proven a vital force in protecting conservation areas in Hawaii. The organization advocated for years for the conservation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The state simply does not have the resources or capacity to manage all of its environmental resources alone, and organizations like KAHEA are essential to helping the state meet its conservation goals.

Additionally, this latest move by the state highlights the growing divide between state leadership and the diverse populace of Hawaii. One cannot help but legitimately wonder how much capacity Clare Conners, who had the privilege of attending Punahou, Yale and Harvard, has to meaningfully empathize with Hawaiians and other local groups who lack the privilege, opportunities and resources to attend elite private schools and Ivy League colleges.

A Hawaiian flag on a bamboo post in the lava field flaps in front of the summit of Mauna Kea, the proposed site of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2019

If we are to look critically and honestly at the “fault lines” across our communities, we cannot ignore the basic fact that some people in the island substantially benefit from opportunities afforded by privilege and others are substantially hampered by their lack of access to those same opportunities.

While these divides are alarming enough unto themselves, they become even more so when individuals who have been aided by privilege assume leadership positions that afford them a substantial degree of power. When those individuals use their power to target disadvantaged groups, the result is often plagued with injustice.

Perhaps most concerning is that the attorney general’s actions do not seem motivated by a commitment to serve a greater public good, rather they feel vindictive and punitive. Over the first four years of Gov. David Ige’s term, we saw former Attorney General Doug Chin take the position to new heights, stepping out on a national stage to challenge President Trump’s immigration ban, fight opioid abuse, and file federal lawsuits against generic drug manufacturers for over-inflating drug prices.

Ige’s second term is now indelibly etched by an attorney general who appears more committed to dogging well-intentioned citizens than protecting them. As noted in the recent piece by the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations: “For many years, the nonprofit community in Hawaii has worked alongside the AG to safeguard Hawaii’s charitable assets to foster an environment under which both charities and their regulator maintain a healthy nonprofit ecosystem.”

The attorney general’s latest actions border on a dangerous abuse of power and set a tone for the office that signals to residents that the office is no longer an ally of the electorate, but rather a relentless and inflexible threat.

Hawaiians have been here before, particularly in 2009 when then Gov. Linda Lingle’s attorney general, Mark Bennett, pursued action, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, to secure the right of the state to sell off ceded lands.

One would hope that after all this time, the Office of the Attorney General would have learned to commit itself to combating the many issues that afflict our community, like increasingly violent crimes, drug addiction or housing discrimination.

Targeting nonprofit organizations, run by community volunteers who work hard to comply with the law, shamefully steers this state with assurance in the absolute wrong direction.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.