The Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a subpoena to access the bank records of a nonprofit organization that opposed the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, but the ruling also further limits the scope of the summons.
In its unanimous opinion on Tuesday, the Supreme Court partially approved and dismissed an appeal by the nonprofit KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, which argued that the Hawaii Attorney General’s subpoena for access to his bank records should be canceled.
“We agree with State AG that its investigative powers validated the subpoena,” the Supreme Court opinion said. “But we find that two subpoena requests seeking information about monies entering rather than leaving KAHEA’s bank accounts are unreasonable.”
Attorney General Clare Connors searched KAHEA’s bank records as part of an investigation to determine whether it violated its status as a nonprofit by soliciting and using funds for “illegal purposes” – namely supporting the 2019 protests on Mauna Kea that blocked construction of the TMT and led to the arrests of 38 kupuna (former Hawaiians).
In November 2019, Connors issued a subpoena to the First Hawaiian Bank, requiring it to produce 18 categories of records from KAHEA’s accounts.
It was granted by the Circuit Court, although the court rejected nine of the subpoena requests. The Circuit Court also limited the scope of the summons to only accounts belonging to the Aloha Aina Support Fund, which was used to oppose the construction of the TMT. The attorney general had requested documents relating to all of KAHEA’s financial accounts.
KAHEA APPEALED the Circuit Court order and asked to quash the entire subpoena, claiming it was retaliation and violated her right to free speech of the First Amendment.
But the subpoena showed no grounds for retaliation and did not violate KAHEA’s constitutional rights, according to the Supreme Court, because it “neither punishes nor prohibits KAHEA’s speech.”
The opinion, however, praised the Circuit Court for blocking nine of the 18 subpoena requests and added that two more requests were “unreasonable” because they concerned money entering the Aloha Aina fund, even though the he investigation revolved around the money going out.
“It doesn’t matter where KAHEA gets its money where the investigation involves whether KAHEA used the Fund to promote an illegal goal,” the Supreme Court said. “And knowing who gave how much to the Aloha ‘Aina fund won’t help State AG determine if KAHEA has an’ illegal purpose ‘.”
Both sides claimed victory after the Supreme Court ruling.
A press release from the AG’s office said the ruling reaffirmed that “in return for substantial tax benefits subsidized by all taxpayers, non-profit organizations are subject to the prosecutor’s broad investigative oversight. and the many investigative tools available to ensure compliance with the law. “
KAHEA said on its Facebook page that the ruling “further reduced the state attorney general’s subpoena for bank documents … going beyond a lower court ruling that quashed that subpoena in half.” .
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