Speaker used funds for bills, clothing

CONCORD – Over the past two years, House Speaker Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, used proceeds from an annual corn roast fund-raiser to buy groceries and clothing, fix his car, stay overnight in Concord and occasionally pay some utility bills, according to information Chandler gave to the Legislative Ethics Committee.

The committee will vote next Monday whether to proceed with formal charges that Chandler, 57, violated ethics guidelines by failing to identify who had given him $64,000 in checks over four years through the Friends of Gene Chandler Committee.

Two lawmakers also allege Chandler broke the guidelines by taking large checks from lobbyists and business owners who could have interest in pending legislation.

“We feel we have all the information we need at this point in time,’’ said Acting Chairman Ned Gordon, a former Republican state senator from Bristol.

The committee delayed a vote Monday since one member, Durham Democratic Rep. Janet Wall, was attending the funeral of an aunt and the panel had just received answers to nine questions it posed to Chandler’s lawyer, Gordon said.

The term of the seven-member panel expires a week from Wednesday, the same day the House of Representatives and state Senate formally elect new presiding officers.

Last week, the House GOP caucus gave Chandler a vote of confidence with 178 out of 239 lawmakers renominating him to become speaker.

Chandler refused to testify Monday, given an ongoing criminal investigation by Attorney General Kelly Ayotte’s office, Gordon said.

Ovide Lamontagne, Chandler’s lawyer, said Chandler did not believe he had to file. He also argued this controversy has revealed inconsistencies between two state laws on acceptable gifts and ethics guidelines that are unclear.

Lamontagne urged the committee to reject a formal hearing in favor of private negotiations to produce a settlement that under the committee’s rules would become public once adopted.

Retiring Jackson Republican Rep. Henry Mock told the committee Monday that in the late spring of 1998, he and a North Country friend of Chandler, Mike Galante, came up with the idea for an annual testimonial to pay Chandler’s personal expenses.

The men proposed it to a “reluctant” Chandler after he said he could no longer afford to stay in the Legislature, said Mock, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who helped form the friends committee in 1998.

“It was never a secret. The whole valley knew we were raising this money, and it was used to offset Gene’s expenses,” he said.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner advised Mock in writing that the friends committee did not have to publicly report its activity, but each year Chandler would have to identify what he had received in profit.

“Enclosed is a copy of the gifts, testimonials and honorariums law and the form that needs to be filed once a year by an individual who gets the net proceeds from an event like you have explained,” Gardner wrote on July 31, 1998.

“You and your friends, however, would not need to file.”

Mock took that to mean Chandler did not have to report, as Chandler himself was a member of the friends committee, even though annual invitations didn’t list him as one.

“I considered Gene a member of the group. You don’t need to file. I know I’ll come under criticism for that with some who say that’s a poor reading of that. Let it be,” he said.

Ethics Committee Chairman Shawn Jasper, a Hudson Republican who stepped down from this case during early deliberations, said Mock’s explanation makes little sense.

“I don’t see how more clear Bill Gardner could have been,” he said. “Gene Chandler had to file.”

Chandler did report in 1999 that he had received $9,600 in profit from the first event without identifying anyone who had given him money.

On annual gift reports, Chandler did not list any proceeds from other fund-raisers until late September, after a New Hampshire Public Radio reporter asked him about the most recent feast at Ellis River Campground in Glen.

From the start, Chandler had sole custody and control over what went into and came out of this checking account from Berlin City Bank.

The Chandler-written checkbook entries covered the two-year period before Oct. 6, when Kingston Republican Rep. Kenneth Weyler and Keene Democratic Rep. Charles Weed first brought the ethics complaint.

It appears Chandler did not deposit all the checks as soon as the friends committee received them. Most of the money for the corn roast traditionally held in mid-September came in from July through September, Mock said.

During those three months in 2003, however, Chandler recorded deposits totaling only $3,100. His separate filings with Gardner’s office about the 2003 event don’t list when every check was received, but those checks with identified dates from donors coming in August and September alone totaled $8,250.

All told, Chandler reported the committee took in checks totaling $17,950 from the 2003 event. His deposit entries in the checkbook between Oct. 6, 2002, and Oct. 6, 2004, total $15,675.

Much of the money got spent on groceries at Patch’s Market in Glen, overnight stays at a Comfort Inn, clothes or other items at Langdon’s Mercantile in Glen and tailor or dry cleaning bills at Carolyn’s Valley Tailor Shop in North Conway.

Sporadic payments of bills for electricity, cell phone and cable television charges were also made from the account.

Mock defended the committee’s decision to invite lobbyists as well as North Country friends of Chandler to contribute.

Throughout each legislative session, state senators hold political fund-raisers that are jam-packed with lobbyists, Mock explained.

“The best answer I can give you is that it’s the culture of the Legislature,” he said.

Mock was asked if the invitation tried to boost donations from lobbyists by mentioning significant legislation to come up each year, such as medical malpractice reform in 2003.

“If it’s an incentive, it is an incentive,” he said. “We didn’t send that invitation out to lose money.”

Donors to Chandler’s roast in 2003 who took an active interest in medical malpractice legislation the following year included the New Hampshire Medical Society ($1,000), New Hampshire Trial Lawyers ($300), New Hampshire Eye and Ear Surgeons and Physicians ($1,000), Fortis Health PAC ($500), S&H Murphy Inc. ($500) and the Demers Group ($300).

Mock said that’s a great example of Chandler’s integrity.

Last spring, Mock blocked final agreement on a medical malpractice compromise, and Chandler, a vocal supporter, never once “leaned” on him, Mock said. “I am so proud of that,” he said. “I can’t believe politics are that good.”