January 29, 2020; Hawaii Civil Beat
Why is the attorney general of Hawaii issuing a subpoena for documents belonging to the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance?
KAHEA is a grassroots group opposing, in part through civil disobedience, the development of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea, and it has been fighting subpoenas in court. Advocates for Hawaii nonprofit organizations say that the subpoena “seems to be a pretext to attack an organization that may not share the same point of view as the investigating agency.” KAHEA has objected to the subpoenas, and the case ended up in the First Circuit Court this week, where the judge punted the case back to the opposing parties.
The attorney general claims KAHEA has violated laws regulating nonprofits by supporting alleged illegal protests. Another charge, that the group has been late in filing its financial reports, was essentially dismissed out of hand by First Circuit Judge James Ashford, who remarked, “It’s a little hard for me to get excited about the Form 990 oversight.”
KAHEA’s attorney says the subpoenas are a politically motivated overreach that violates the free speech rights of the protestors. It turns out that the attorney general has also issued subpoenas to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which helped fund the protests, and to Hawaiian Airlines to try to get names of people who donated frequent flyer miles to the protestors.
Leaders of the Hawaii Association of Nonprofit Organizations (HANO) called “foul” in a recent op-ed for Hawaii’s Civil Beat. They went on to note that this kind of move taints the cooperative relationship forged to date between nonprofits and state regulators:
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. This cooperative effort has helped Hawaii’s nonprofit community to be better stewards of their charitable assets.
Recent actions by the AG, however, threaten that ecosystem by introducing doubt regarding the motivations of regulatory actions.
While we support the protection of our state’s charitable resources, we disagree with the idea that a legitimate nonprofit organization’s participation in nonviolent protest, assisting those that are, or free expression, should be grounds for investigation. The targeting of organizations expressing opposition — and in particular, to government—is undemocratic and erodes our civil society. This is not what Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations and the nonprofit sector stand for.
We’ve seen this type of unconstitutional overreach employed before when the rights of indigenous people come up against corporate interests. Actually, it’s a surprise the judge did not quash the measure in its entirety.—Ruth McCambridge