Republicans, Media, Public Demanding Answers
CONCORD - Speaker Bill O'Brien must give a full accounting of his participation in the DJ Bettencourt and Bob Mead scandals, Democratic House leaders said.
"Speaker Bill O'Brien is a public official and he owes the public answers. The Speaker's administration apparently misused public funds for political purposes and attempted to cover up a major deception by his second-in-command," said Rep. Terie Norelli, House Democratic Leader. "These are not issues that can be just swept aside for political purposes. Speaker O'Brien must give the people of New Hampshire, and the members of the House, a full and clear accounting of his role in both of these scandals."
The media has reported that an aide in the majority office, Bob Mead - who is also a close associate of Speaker O'Brien's - billed taxpayers for mileage on trips to recruit Republican House candidates, and apparently spent taxpayer-funded time on "Republican outreach." O'Brien's office said they were too busy to answer questions about what Mead was doing for his taxpayer-funded salary.
Then this weekend, O'Brien's second-in-command, D.J. Bettencourt abruptly resigned when it was discovered that he had apparently falsified internship reports to the University of New Hampshire Law School. Bettencourt at first claimed he was resigning to take a new job - with a foundation created by O'Brien.
In today's Foster's Daily Democrat, Republican Representative Julie Brown, said she believed there should be an investigation into the Speaker's role in attempting to cover up Bettencourt's alleged frauds. The Concord Monitor today called on Speaker Bill O'Brien to answer a number of questions about his role in the Bettencourt scandal. And today's Union Leader blasted O'Brien for being unclear about the Mead scandal - and said of the Bettencourt scandal, "While it is unclear just what the Speaker knew about this fiasco and when, he might do his party and the House a favor by reflecting on his own future as a leader."
In response to questions, O'Brien sent around an email to Republican representatives calling on them to close ranks and stonewall questions.
Democratic Rep. Steve Shurtleff of Concord said, "In his pursuit of his extreme, far-right agenda, Bill O'Brien has created a culture of corruption in the New Hampshire. O'Brien, Bettencourt and their team have stomped on anything that gets in their way, including House rules, the New Hampshire Constitution, and the people of New Hampshire. It's time Bill O'Brien face the music and tell the people of New Hampshire the full story behind both these scandals."
Entries in Mileage Reimbursements (4)
Bob Mead, a state employee in the House Majority Office, was reimbursed by taxpayers for traveling to Republican events where he sought to recruit House candidates for this year's elections.
While it's rare that House employees file for mileage, the practice is allowed. State House veterans, however, say the purpose of Mead's activity has crossed into an ethical gray area.
"House employees should be paid with public money only for legislative - not campaign - work," said Rep. Terie Norelli, the House Democratic leader from Portsmouth.
Mead, a former state representative from Mont Vernon, was House chief of staff during Bill O'Brien's first year as speaker. In December, he was moved to a post in the House Majority Office, and rumblings at the State House indicated Mead was unhappy with the demotion. He took a $19,820 cut to his annual salary - he now makes $64,380 - and assumed a newly created position, director of legislative services.
Mead declined comment about the mileage Friday when approached inside his office on the third floor of the State House.
"I'm not going to talk about it," he said.
Norelli said Mead's trips raise questions "as to what exactly Bob Mead is being paid to do for the House Majority Office." Mead is known to check in with Republican representatives about their plans, maintain a list of who is running or retiring and share that information with the state party. A county GOP official said he exchanges weekly emails with Mead to make sure their lists of potential candidates match up, and Mead sends a note if he hears of a potential candidate in the area.
House Majority Whip Shawn Jasper, a nine-term Hudson Republican, said at one point he received an email from Mead asking him if he is seeking his seat again.
"To the best of my knowledge, he is keeping track of which Republicans are planning on running," Jasper said. "Beyond that, I'm really not sure what he's doing."
Mead's job description puts him in charge of "legislative outreach," for which he is to "coordinate, develop and cultivate relationships with legislators, as well as state, county and local leaders to expand communications and dialogue and to provide information about legislative goals and the Majority agenda."
Through February and March, Mead tallied $455.66 in mileage and tolls to attend events throughout the state where he gave a "presentation on legislator services."
According to people who were at some of the GOP meetings, the presentations mostly encouraged attendees to run for office.
"He was like, we need people to fill these slates out, we've got to get some bodies in these seats here," said Rep. Mike Ball, chairman of the Manchester Republican Committee. Ball didn't feel Mead's message was partisan, saying it "could have just as easily been given to a Democratic city committee."
Jerry DeLemus, head of the conservative Rochester 9-12 group, said Mead attended a monthly meeting where "his whole approach with our group was to see if there were any candidates to fill any voids that were there."
DeLemus, like others interviewed about Mead's presentations, said they heard no message from Mead that potential candidates must support O'Brien's re-election as speaker.
"He didn't mention any covert plans, except obviously they want to hold on to the majority or the supermajority if possible," DeLemus said. "I think he's just trying to motivate people to run for office and fill the seats if they're a good, qualified candidate."
Seven times Mead took trips from Concord to places including Rochester, Durham and Laconia. Four times he left from Mont Vernon, including a North Haverhill visit on a Sunday in March, racking up 232 miles round-trip, a day after he billed taxpayers for a Saturday trip to Concord.
Mead is the only member of House majority or minority office to have filed for state mileage reimbursement over the past two years, according to the legislative accounting office. House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt said he didn't know Mead was billing the state for his travel until his office was contacted by the Monitor.
"What Bob Mead does during his off hours is entirely his business," Bettencourt said. But upon learning of the mileage requests, "the speaker and I asked Bob Mead to reimburse the state and it is my understanding he has done so. Bob fully respects that it is important to guard against even the appearance of any impropriety as a public employee."
Question of judgment
The New Hampshire General Court's ethics guidelines don't expressly prohibit campaign or electoral work on state time. They say that legislative employees "should view his or her work for the General Court as a public service and should strive to promote the common good of the citizens of the State of New Hampshire through the devotion of his or her professional talents and energies to the support of the General Court in its mission as the representative of the citizens of this state."
"A legislative employee or officer should provide objective advice, information, and alternatives to legislators, independent of the employee's or officer's personal beliefs or interests or the interests of third parties," the guidelines say. "A legislative employee or officer should avoid activities that conflict with this objectivity or give the appearance of conflict."
Greg Moore, O'Brien's current chief of staff who replaced Mead, signed off on Mead's mileage reimbursement. Moore said Mead is presumably doing his job "if his job is outreach and he's reaching out to Republican groups," and added that Mead has passed along various requests from constituents.
"Obviously what he's doing in his partisan role as a partisan staffer is whatever direction he gets from the majority office," Moore said. As House chief of staff, Moore does not work in the majority office.
Bettencourt said House employees get their job descriptions from the chief of staff, who also has sole authority to approve mileage reimbursement. The majority office "has absolutely no role in mileage reimbursement," Bettencourt said.
"During the times Bob is at the State House, his activities are consistent with his job description, which involve responsibilities the partisan office has always handled," Bettencourt said.
Democrats say all their electoral work is performed by party officials or workers paid for by a political action committee. Donna Sytek, a former Republican House speaker, said she constantly tried to get candidates to run for office, but she has never heard of a lawmaker or employee making such efforts on state time or mileage.
"We never had anybody that was specifically tasked with recruiting candidates," she said.
There are three employees in the Republican-controlled House Majority Office and two employees in the Democratic House Minority office. The annual salaries of the five state employees range from $45,458 to $68,566. When Democrats controlled the House from 2007 to 2010, they averaged three full-time employees and one part-timer in the majority office, none of whom performed electoral work, according to Eileen Kelly, the Democrats' senior legislative assistant.
"It was strictly policy and office-running," Kelly said.
For state employees who are partisan by nature, separating legislative duties from electoral work can be a "gray area," Sytek said.
"I always wondered why state dollars supported partisan offices, but that was historically how it was done," Sytek said. "I thought, well, someone must have thought this through and thought it was okay."
Moore said tax dollars have supported partisan staffers for as long as he can remember, but a future Legislature could choose to change the policy.
"That's a question that I suppose could come up in a speaker's race," he said.
New Hampshire Democratic Party Files Right to Know Request on Mileage-gate
Concord, NH - In an email dated Thursday December 8th, Republican House Speaker Bill O'Brien offered thousands of dollars in taxpayer funded mileage reimbursement payments to Republican lawmakers who attended secret briefings on the Speaker's redistricting plan. [E-mail Text] Today, the New Hampshire Democratic Party filed a right to know request to discover exactly how much of New Hampshire taxpayers' hard earned money O'Brien handed out to Republicans in Concord. [Right to know request text]
"We'd like to present this plan to you [Republican House Reps], county by county, Friday December 9 and Monday December 12," wrote O'Brien. "Mileage will be paid to members who attend these county caucuses." But on the House Calendar published the following day, O'Brien wrote, "For the remainder of 2011...Mileage will not be paid on Mondays and Fridays except for statutory committees." [Calendar]
"Speaker O'Brien has a well deserved reputation for political cronyism," said Harrell Kirstein, press secretary for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "But even for him this is a new low. O'Brien doled out thousands of dollars in taxpayer to Republican Representatives who attended his secret political meetings in Concord."
The e-mail missive also said stated that "No written or take-home materials will be provided at these caucus meetings," and Representatives attending the secret meeting were sworn to secrecy. According to news reports, the Speaker's Office papered over the State House meeting room's windows. [TheLobbyNH.com, 12/9/2011]
Bipartisan estimates show that a typical session for the 400 members House costs approximately $14,000.00 in mileage reimbursements. [Union Leader, 11/18/2011] Mileage payments for a Republican caucus could cost taxpayers as much as $10,000.00 per day, or $20,000.00 for both of the secret closed door meetings.
"This is a horrendous waste of taxpayer money," continued Kirstein. "At at time when many New Hampshire families and small businesses are struggling Speaker O'Brien is using their tax dollars to fund his political agenda. That is shameful."
The full text of a story from TheLobbyNH.com on Mileage-gate can be found below.
Ethics questioned in O'Brien mileage payments
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
State Democratic leaders were livid Tuesday at learning House Republican lawmakers got paid mileage to see behind-closed-doors proposals for redistricting the entire, 400-person House of Representatives.
The Lobby confirmed that House Speaker William O'Brien offered mileage to members who attended redistricting sessions Friday and Monday despite a House policy against paying mileage on the first and last day of the work week to save money.
''Due to time constraints we were unable to set these dates out any further beyond Monday as the committee must approve a plan as soon as possible. We apologize for any inconvenience. Mileage will be paid to members who attend these county caucuses,'' O'Brien wrote.
Even the most recent House calendar stresses that mileage is not to be paid on Mondays and Fridays except for statutory committees - of which the redistricting panel is not one.
House Information Officer Shannon Shutts stressed the edict on mileage is the speaker's own policy and this instance does not represent the violation of any binding rule or regulation
''I wouldn't say so since the austerity measure was the Speaker's decision in the first place...it wasn't a rule or regulation per se, so I don't think he could be said to be in 'violation' of anything,'' Shutts said.
''The Speaker felt it was important for Committee Chairman Paul Mirski to be able to hold those caucuses to get input from the members, and Friday and Monday were the only days that worked scheduling wise. ''
Harrell Kirstein, spokesman for the NH Democratic Party, said the mileage could have cost as much as $20,000 and could even represent breaking an ethics rule.
"Once again we see how out of touch Speaker O'Brien really is, using public money to fund a private political meeting in Concord,'' Kirstein said. ''This is a reckless and ethically questionable waste of $20,000 in taxpayer money and the people of New Hampshire deserve a refund."
State Democratic leaders were upset to learn Tuesday that the House GOP redistricting plan was still subject to change and would not be revealed in advance of a subcommittee meeting this Thursday.
"Democrats on the committee expected the Republican leadership plan to be presented today. Instead, we are told the plan still is not ready. That gives the public only 24 hours to analyze the plan, see how it affects them, and prepare comments for public testimony the next day," said Barrington Democratic Rep. Bob Perry.
"We have had the census numbers for nine months and we're giving the public 24 hours for review and comment. This is not the kind of transparency promised by Republican leadership."
The Lobby already reported that House GOP leaders have circulated redistricting plans that carve up parts of cities including Nashua, Manchester, Concord and Keene and lump a city ward in with neighboring towns.
CONCORD – House Speaker William O’Brien today congratulated members of the House for their savings of 36% in mileage costs — due to better financial controls and despite federal fuel reimbursement rates rising 11% — over the period of July 1, 2011 through October 20, 2011 from the comparable period of the last term from July 1, 2009 through October 20, 2009.
House Speaker William O’Brien
“We should congratulate all House members for their willingness to sacrifice to find cost savings in this time of great budgetary strain. The people of New Hampshire will appreciate this almost 40 percent reduction in legislative mileage reimbursement payments as they struggle with persistently high unemployment and now the hidden inflation resulting from uncontrolled federal spending. Accordingly, we have led by example and will continue to look for opportunities to save.”