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Editorial: Bragdon’s New Job; Legislature Rightly OKs Ethics Probe

That was a sweet deal that former New Hampshire Senate President Peter Bragdon accepted from the Local Government Center, but was it an unethical one? There’s no way to answer that question authoritatively without more information, which is why we applaud the Legislative Ethics Committee’s unanimous vote on Oct. 28 to launch a preliminary investigation.

Background is in order here. The Local Government Center at one time was an umbrella organization that included the New Hampshire Municipal Association, which is a lobbying and trade association for the state’s municipalities, and risk pools that offered health and liability insurance to towns and cities. Although it was the Local Government Center that hired Bragdon in August to be its executive director at $180,000 a year, the organization no longer exists. At the insistence of state regulators, the organization split into four separate nonprofits. Bragdon is now head of the HealthTrust, which provides municipal health insurance.

The New Hampshire Bureau of Securities Regulation pushed for reorganization in part because of concerns about cross-subsidization between risk pools and allegations that the nonprofit insurance services had been overcharging municipal clients. Property-Liability Trust, another of the new entities to emerge from the breakup of the Local Government Center, is under orders to repay $17.1 million to HealthTrust. The Local Government Center has fought state regulators every step of the way — its appeal is now pending before the state Supreme Court — and the Legislature has established a committee to review the law that governs how the state regulates such risk pools.

Bragdon, who was Senate president at the time he accepted the job, pledged to recuse himself from any matter involving his new employer. Considering that as Senate president he set the agenda and determined committee appointments, that would have been all but impossible. Fortunately, Bragdon heeded calls for him to relinquish his leadership position, although he did remain in the Senate.

That hasn’t satisfied Rep. Rick Watrous, D-Concord, who argues that Bragdon was hired specifically because of his legislative clout, meaning that his salary amounts to an illegal gift. Watrous also accuses Bragdon of violating legislative ethics by appointing Sen. Jeannie Forrester, R-Meredith, to the legislative committee studying the regulation of municipal risk pools at the same time he was pursuing the job with the Local Government Center.

If that were true, it would constitute a serious conflict of interest. But like just about everything else involving the Local Government Center, the circumstances surrounding Forrester’s appointment are tangled. She was officially appointed to the committee on July 19, more than a week after the Local Government Center approached Bragdon about the executive director’s position. But Bragdon says that he had decided to appoint Forrester on July 5, the same day he finished his work as Senate president on the bill that created the committee — and before LGC approached him. Forrester, whom Bragdon also consulted about the advisability of taking the job, backs Bragdon’s account.

Conflicts are unavoidable in a citizens legislature served by people who must make a living elsewhere. Upper Valley residents might recall questions raised when then Sen. Matthew Houde was hired by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center to work in strategic communications at a time when the Legislature had several major health care matters pending. Houde pledged not to lobby the Legislature as part of his job and to recuse himself from votes in which his conflict of interest figured. Ultimately, he decided not to run for re-election.

By fully exploring the circumstances of Bragdon’s hiring and Forrester’s appointment, the Ethics Committee will put to rest any questions about the senator’s motives and signal the Legislature’s commitment to not allowing its work to be undermined by lingering questions about its members. Of course, voters have the ultimate say when they go to the polls about whether elected officials are keeping the public’s interest foremost.