Cook On Concord

Life is not simple. Good people sometimes do bad things. Bad things sometimes happen to good people. The issues of guilt, innocence, appropriate sanction and democracy can all get wrapped up in individual cases.

All of these factors were evident in the matter concerning former New Hampshire House Speaker Gene Chandler, the recently issued report of the Legislative Ethics Committee and the action the New Hampshire House of Representatives took on that report.

The facts were fairly simple. Representative Chandler held fund-raisers that initially were local, constituent-run efforts to help him with the expenses of being in office, but became large-scale fundraisers after he became speaker, attracting corporate and political action committee contributions in the thousands of dollars from those with business before the Legislature.

Chandler pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $2,000 fine. He then faced a hearing before the Legislative Ethics Committee and was unable to negotiate a settlement of those charges.

In an 11-page report, the committee unanimously found Chandler violated ethical standards in failing to report the receipts at the fund-raisers and for taking contributions above limits set in the rules. It unanimously recommended that Chandler be expelled from the House for the remainder of the present term.

The committee found in its conclusion that “These violations are serious in and of themselves, but made even more so because they were committed by a member of leadership …”

The committee said that anything short of expulsion “would demean the ethical standards established by the Legislature for its membership.”

The report of the committee was that of 11 people led by Ned Gordon, a Laconia attorney and former state senator, one Republican and one Democratic member of the House, one Republican and one Democratic State Senator and two citizen members named by the Senate and House leadership. It was the equivalent of conviction, with the House the final arbiter of penalty.

Speaker Doug Scamman took the report, which was issued on May 25, and scheduled it for hearing the following Wednesday, June 1. As the Memorial Day weekend intervened, many representatives thought this was a “rush to judgment” and asked for postponement. Scamman said this matter needed to be disposed of quickly because there was so much other business for the House to do, and he refused to postpone the hearing.

There were rallies the day before, both for and against Chandler. There was speculation that he might resign, making the report and action on it moot, run in a special election and return to Concord with the support of his constituents.

For over 3-1/2 hours on June 1, the House debated many matters. The integrity of the House and its ethics processes and principles were advanced by many urging the adoption of the report and the sanction. The goodness and honesty of Chandler, notwithstanding the violation, was cited by many. The fact that the problems had been aired before the last election and his constituents returned him to office was claimed to be dispositive by some who said the constitutional rights of the constituents would be violated if he were removed — a particularly curious argument, given the existence of the very process that was involved in the matter and the existence of the possibility of impeachment.

Finally, the fact that he had paid a fine, pled guilty to a criminal charge and effectively been deprived of the speakership was claimed to have been punishment enough.

In a relatively close vote, 189-172, the House voted against adopting the report and its proposed sanction. Immediately thereafter, a motion was made to reprimand Chandler. This, in turn, was amended to replace the word “reprimand” with the word “censure.” For the uninitiated, this means that the least penalty was replaced by the intermediate penalty, that just below expulsion. That amendment passed and then the motion to accept the report but substitute censure was adopted.

After that vote, Scamman reported to Chandler that he was censured. Chandler declined to address the House on the subject, and the matter was over.

A host of issues were raised in this process, including why present guidelines allow contributions for support of individuals in their official capacities at all and only limit contributions by those with business before the Legislature.

Some observers indicated that it “did not pass the laugh test” to allow over $60,000 to be raised to support one’s official functions and not have to be accountable to someone about it. This raised the entire question of how anyone could be speaker of the House or president of the Senate if he or she is not independently wealthy. That in turn raises the question of why the Legislature does not face reality and establish some kind of fund to support those in positions that are virtually full time.

Several measures have been introduced and are winding their way through the legislative process to change the rules and tighten the standards. This may be a benefit of the Chandler case, yet there already were rules that were ignored because of an inexplicable blindness to propriety. While no one accused Chandler of having been influenced on any issue because of contributions, the entire process left many scratching their heads in wonder about how someone could be oblivious to appearances in accepting such large contributions.

In any event, the Chandler case made those involved and watching wonder if being a good guy is a substitute for following the rules, or whether the ultimate disposition of the case was a deliberative process by the House in applying the proper standard. Time will tell.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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