Jim Kenyon: Keeping Up the Fight

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

For 11 years, Scott Traudt has waged a one-man campaign — a crusade, really — against Lebanon police. He’s gone to court numerous times, filed umpteen public records requests and even videotaped traffic stops.

All actions to clear his name, he says, by showing that Lebanon cops don’t always play by the rules.

I’m not sure Traudt, who lives in Strafford, will ever accomplish his goal. Still I believe the public owes him a bit of gratitude for shedding light on the department’s inner workings.

A few years ago, Traudt’s sleuthing helped bring to light a state investigation concerning three Lebanon cops involved in faking the results of a state-required physical fitness test. Before it was over, a high-ranking Lebanon officer had resigned and another had taken a pay cut. It was an embarrassing police misdeed that city officials would have preferred to keep hush-hush. Traudt made sure that didn’t happen.

He continues to “grind it out” against Lebanon police because “supposedly, nobody is above the law,” he said. “People don’t realize the power that police have to alter anyone’s life.”

Traudt, 52, definitely knows.

On Jan. 14, 2007, Traudt and his then-wife Victoria were pulled over after leaving the now defunct Electra Nightclub in West Lebanon. Police claimed that Victoria Traudt had run a red light. While officer Phillip Roberts, who is now Lebanon’s deputy chief, was giving her a field sobriety test, Scott Traudt got out of the car to check on his wife.

What happened next remains up for debate.

Police said that Scott Traudt punched Roberts in the head and body slammed officer Richard Smolenski to the ground. Traudt’s attorney argued in court that the arresting officers had “fabricated their accounts of events.”

Take your pick on whom to believe. I just know that in 2007, unlike neighboring Hanover, Lebanon still hadn’t equipped its cruisers with dashboard cameras. As then-Chief Jim Alexander told me in 2009, “If we had (had) cameras in this case, a lot of time, money and heartburn here would have been saved.”

Two of the charges filed against Victoria Traudt — driving while intoxicated and a red light violation — were thrown out by a judge. A Grafton County Superior Court jury also found her not guilty of resisting arrest and simple assault on a police officer. Her attorney, George Ostler, of Norwich, successfully argued that she had acted in defense of her husband, who was blasted with pepper spray and clubbed with a nightstick during the altercation.

Scott Traudt didn’t fare as well. A jury found him guilty of disorderly conduct and simple assault against Roberts. But he was acquitted of a second simple assault charge of “body slamming” Smolenski, who now oversees Lebanon’s detective bureau. Traudt was sentenced to one to three years in state prison. A stiff penalty for a misdemeanor conviction. Particularly since Traudt didn’t have a criminal record. But New Hampshire prosecutors and judges tend to take a hard line in alleged crimes against cops. They’re all part of the same team.

Traudt spent 364 days at the state prison in Berlin, where he was one of the few with a four-year college degree. Convinced that he wasn’t the only one behind bars who hadn’t received a fair shake, Traudt helped two inmates craft appeals that resulted in their sentences being reduced.

Before his arrest, Traudt had a good-paying job with a private security firm that landed him in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. After prison, Traudt no longer had the means to pay for an attorney. (Traudt and his wife also divorced.) He began representing himself, filing a federal lawsuit that alleged Lebanon police had violated his civil rights. It was dismissed in 2013.

In December, Traudt filed a motion in Grafton Superior Court for a court-appointed attorney. He maintains that Lebanon police failed to disclose important internal records that would have bolstered his case. Traudt hopes a skilled lawyer can get to the bottom of what’s in those records, and end the secrecy.

He’s focusing on New Hampshire’s so-called Laurie List, which dates back to a 1993 state Supreme Court decision. It requires police chiefs to submit to prosecutors the names of officers who could be problematic if called to testify at a trial. The list is a tightly guarded secret, but defendants are entitled to know whether any officers who might testify against them have credibility issues.

While his federal civil suit was still ongoing, Traudt obtained a 2013 U.S. District Court document labeled “confidential affidavit” that he recently shared with me. The sworn statement by Alexander and Gary Smith, who served as his deputy, deals with police matters between 2006 and 2013.

During that time, Alexander and Smith said they notified the county attorney and courts on “three occasions when Lebanon police officers’ conduct and behavior involved deliberate lying during an administrative hearing, or other official proceeding, such as an internal investigation.”

As a result of the “Laurie issues,” the unnamed officers were “separated from their employment” with the department.

I don’t know whether the affidavit has any bearing on Traudt’s case. But it certainly raises questions about what was going on inside the department at the time. It might be that Lebanon’s internal troubles are in the past. Equipping cruisers with dashboard video cameras and patrol officers with body cameras have been positive steps to increase public confidence that Lebanon police are indeed playing by the rules.

I couldn’t find anyone involved Traudt’s case on the police side who would talk about it last week.

Traudt is piecing his life back together, working at everything from commercial fisherman to substitute school teacher. He’s also a volunteer youth soccer coach.

And he’s keeping up the fight to clear his name. “I’m not going away,” he told me.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.