N.H. Panel to Probe Senator on Ethics

Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Concord — The Legislative Ethics Committee yesterday voted to investigate whether state Sen. Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, violated state law and ethics rules by accepting an $180,000-a-year job as executive director of the Local Government Center.

The LGC, which has spent years locked in legal battle with state regulators, hired Bragdon in August. At the time, he was president of the state Senate; several days later, amid public criticism over potential conflicts of interest, Bragdon announced he would step down from that post.

But Bragdon remains in the Senate, and Rep. Rick Watrous, a Concord Democrat, filed a complaint Oct. 1 alleging Bragdon violated state law and ethics rules by accepting a lucrative job at “an organization with so much financial and legal business before the state.”

As Watrous put it, “Bragdon should not have used his public office to attain the job’s considerable personal benefits. ... As long as Bragdon maintains both his Senate seat and his position as LGC executive director, Bragdon will violate the ethics guidelines’ (Principles) of Public Service by having conflicts of interests and real and apparent improper influences.”

Bragdon has denied the LGC hired him to take advantage of his position in the Legislature. (The LGC has since undergone a corporate reorganization, leaving Bragdon as executive director of HealthTrust Inc., the larger of the LGC’s two risk pools, which provide insurance coverage to local governments.)

“The record will clearly show that I was hired to provide organizational leadership to HealthTrust Inc. and not to try to influence legislation. I have stated numerous times that I will recuse myself from any legislation related to RSA 5-B risk pools, and that matter was made clear to my employer prior to my hiring,” Bragdon said Monday in a statement.

The ethics committee, which includes both Democrats and Republicans, spent 70 minutes in closed session yesterday while reviewing Watrous’s complaint. It then voted, 6-0, to open a “preliminary investigation” of the complaint, which was then made public.

Chairman Martin Gross said the committee needs more information before it can make a decision about whether Bragdon broke the rules.

“This does not constitute in any manner of means a finding that Sen. Bragdon violated the rules,” Gross said. “I want to emphasize, this is simply the only way the statute lets us go forward to get the additional information we think we need in order to make an informed judgement about the truth of the allegations in the complaint.”

The last time the ethics committee opened such an investigation was in 2010. The committee will now gather more information before making a decision about the complaint; its options include dismissing it, taking some informal action or ordering a formal hearing that could lead to a recommendation that the Legislature take some action against Bragdon.

“Though anyone can file an ethics complaint against a legislator, I am confident that I have followed the pertinent laws in this matter,” Bragdon said.

Watrous is in his third term in the Legislature and serves on the House Judiciary Committee. He’s made a number of ethics complaints against Concord officials since 2002, when he left his job as executive director of Concord Community TV.

His new complaint deals instead with the LGC, which has spent years battling the state Bureau of Securities Regulation over the legality of its business practices, with the case now pending before the state Supreme Court.

Watrous said Bragdon was hired by the LGC because the group “wanted a political insider to attain a resolution of its legal issues with the state,” and so it picked “a powerful state senator.” As a result, Watrous wrote, any pay and benefits Bragdon gets from the organization represent a prohibited gift under state law, since “in this instance the employment is related to the government position held.”

Watrous also said Bragdon violated ethics rules by appointing state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, to a legislative committee studying possible changes to state law in the wake of the LGC’s legal case. That appointment, Watrous wrote, came while Bragdon was in talks with the LGC about a job.

Forrester, of Meredith, represents Senate District 2, which includes the Upper Valley towns of Haverhill, Piermont, Orford, Orange, Dorchester and Grafton.

Bragdon has denied any wrongdoing, and he “has conducted himself in accordance with applicable statutes and ethics guidelines at all times,” wrote his attorney, Russell Hilliard, in an Oct. 16 letter to the ethics committee responding to Watrous’s allegations.

Bragdon was hired by the LGC, Hilliard wrote, for a job requiring “business acumen and leadership skills,” qualities that Bragdon possessed as “a result of his entire life’s work, obviously including serving the public through elected office.”

He wrote that Bragdon was not hired to lobby state officials, and he intends to recuse himself “with respect to issues that may come before the Legislature that have some relationship to his employer, or its related entities. ... Notwithstanding the speculation to the contrary in the complaint, this procedure on his part is in full compliance with the applicable ethics requirements.”

Hilliard also wrote that Bragdon had decided to appoint Forrester to the LGC study committee in early July, more than a week before he began talking to the LGC about a job. (The formal appointment, however, came July 19, more than a week after Bragdon was first approached about the post.)

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