The Honolulu lawyer will not be available next week, so a group will represent itself

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By Timothy Hurley   October 12, 2016   STAR-ADVERTISER

The Honolulu lawyer will not be available next week, so a group will represent itself

The case against the Thirty Meter Telescope suffered a setback after the attorney representing the Mauna Kea Hui petitioners walked away a week before the contested case hearing is set to begin.

Honolulu attorney Richard Naiwieha Wurdeman formally withdrew as Mauna Kea Hui counsel on Monday, citing scheduling conflicts.
Wurdeman, who could not be reached Tuesday, previously said other legal cases he’s handling, including one on the mainland, were already scheduled for the month of October.

Hearings officer Riki May Amano declined to accommodate Wurdeman’s requests to delay the hearing, scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo.

One of Wurdeman’s clients, Kealoha Pisciotta, said the attorney had no other choice but to withdraw from the case. She accused Amano of being unfair.

“It doesn’t seem like our counsel’s schedule matters to her,” said Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and longtime critic of astronomy on Hawaii’s tallest mountain. “We’re at a point where I cannot believe this is the type of treatment we are getting.”

While Amano could not be reached for comment, attorneys for the University of Hawaii at Hilo last month submitted a formal notice of opposition to any delay, saying the petitioners were put on notice as far back as July that the hearing would be scheduled for October.
“Yet, they inexplicably waited until the second week of September to alert the Hearings Officer that their counsel is unavailable for the month of October,” the objection says.

The UH-Hilo document said that the petitioners also failed to offer any formal proof of Wurdeman’s unavailability, as required by law.
Wurdeman, the head of a one-attorney law firm, previously suggested that the evidentiary hearing be scheduled after the holidays in January.
Pisciotta said Amano, the former Hawaii island Circuit Court judge, should be more accommodating. She said one of the major issues at hand is due process and the appearance of fairness, and that rushing things along is a violation of that.

“We are there because the (Hawaii) Supreme Court sent this case back. She’s defying them at this point,” she said.

The state Supreme Court ordered a new contested case hearing after ruling in December that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources made a due process error when it approved the project before conducting the 2011 contested case.

The high court said that the board, by formally approving the project first, failed to consider the evidence presented during the hearing.
The ruling capped a bad year for the cutting-edge Thirty Meter Telescope, billed as one of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world. Scheduled to start construction in 2015 and become operational in 2024, the $1.4 billion project was blocked on several occasions by protesters who claim the mountain as sacred.

Pisciotta, a former telescope operator, said that with no funds to hire a backup attorney, the members of the group will forge ahead by representing themselves.

But, she said, they aren’t happy about it. While the members represented themselves at the initial hearing in 2011 and in opposition to previous Mauna Kea astronomy projects, they aren’t exactly prepared this time because they were relying on their attorney.
For Pisciotta, it is especially difficult, she said, because she’s in the throes of a political campaign, running for state House District No. 3 as the Green Party candidate.

She said it looks like her campaign will have to take a back seat.

“It’s making it very hard,” she said. “We’ll just do our best and hope everything is OK.”

The Mauna Kea Hui petitioners are Pisciotta, Clarence Ching, the Flores-Case Ohana, Deborah J. Ward, Paul Neves and KAHEA: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance.

Honolulu attorney James Wright said that in nearly 30 years of law practice, he’s never seen a case where a judge or hearings officer refused to adjust for scheduling conflicts.

Wright represents TMT opponent and Campbell Estate heiress Abigail Kawananakoa in her June lawsuit against the state alleging that the Department of Land and Natural Resources withheld public information about the hiring of Amano as the hearings officer.

Wright said Tuesday it appears that rather than accommodating the petitioner’s schedule, Amano is going out of her way to meet TMT’s timeline.

After the project was thwarted by the Supreme Court in December, TMT officials announced that they would need a permit for construction on Mauna Kea by the end of this year or the beginning of next year — or they would take their telescope to another mountain.

TMT officials spent the summer evaluating potential backup sites atop peaks in India, Chile, Mexico and the Canary Islands.

Wright said Amano’s refusal to accommodate Wurdeman’s schedule and the attorney’s withdrawal from the case is going to make some people angry.

“This is rigged. You don’t do this. You simply don’t do this. It took the Supreme Court to force BLNR to have a fair hearing. And now Riki May Amano is making it a farce,” he said.

“Everything starts with the deadline imposed by the TMT,” Wright said, “and she’s serving up a decision in time for the Supreme Court to rubber-stamp it.”
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Clarification: This story has been updated to include attorney James Wright’s representation of Abigail Kawananakoa in a lawsuit related to TMT. An earlier version of this story and in Wednesday’s print edition did not include this information.