By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The day after a Littleton brewery had a close call from an apparent stray ember that set the roof on fire, New Hampshire’s deputy insurance commissioner, David J. (D.J.) Bettencourt, made a public appeal on Twitter on behalf of the business:
“This week, @SchillingBeer suffered a terrible fire that was minutes away from flattening their entire business and a big part of their operations were harmed. This weekend, buy some Schilling. The owners are special people who do a ton of charitable work. Let’s have their back!”
Apart from the damaged roof, the former grist mill that operates as Schilling Beer Company had smoke and water damage, some of which reached into the bar and dining area. Littleton firefighters had prevented the June 23 fire from extending beyond the roof and decking, and employees returned to work the following day. The day after that, they were again serving from their food truck.
Littleton Fire Chief Michael McQuillen estimated the damage at about $50,000.
There was concern that, had it gotten into the attic, the fire could quickly spread throughout the 1790s building and into closely adjacent buildings that also were hundreds of years old. McQuillen said the first three firefighters on the scene assumed the fire already had reached the attic, and they stretched a line to that space before the arrival of the department’s aerial truck. By doing so, they were able to restrict the fire to the roofing materials. The aerial truck allowed the department to start extinguishing the fire from the outside of the building.
The result was a burned section of the roof that reached down into old asphalt shingles under the wood decking, McQuillen said. Below that, the building sustained only water and smoke damage.
The chief said they believe a hot ember from the chimney fell onto the roof and caught the cedar shingle shakes on fire.
A call to the owners of Schilling Beer was not returned, so it is unclear whether the company’s insurance will cover their loss. However, they received immediate support from the deputy insurance commissioner.
The question then arose: Is it appropriate for a government official who oversees the insurance industry to make a public pitch in support of a business experiencing an insurable loss?
Some in the insurance industry question the ethics of Bettencourt’s tweet. Gerry Kennedy, chief executive officer of Observatory Holdings, a company that does underwriting and conducts risk analyses for insurers, has been advocating for the insurance commission to take a stronger regulatory role in ensuring that businesses receive the insurance benefits they paid to receive.
“I find it quite ironic,” Kennedy said, “that a public entity can support a single business owner for the perils of fire, but the same entity could not support every business owner with lost income for the peril of theft due the lack of due process afforded every business owner in the state of New Hampshire during the COVID pandemic.”
Insurance Commissioner Chris Nicolopoulos thinks Bettencourt acted appropriately. Through his consumer outreach coordinator, Tiffany Fuller, Nicolopoulos responded, “The mission of the New Hampshire Insurance Department is to promote and protect the public good by ensuring the existence of a safe and competitive insurance marketplace through the development and enforcement of the insurance laws of the state of New Hampshire.
“This department and its employees do not adjudicate insurance claims. Coverage disputes are handled privately between policyholders and insurers, and subsequent by the judicial system.
“Deputy Commissioner Bettencourt was expressing his personal support for a small businesses that experienced an unfortunate situation. For those reasons and more, there was nothing improper about his tweet.”
The question also was asked of Bettencourt, but he did not respond. Neither did Gov. Chris Sununu, who named Bettencourt — his former policy director and chair of the Governor’s Re-Opening Task Force — to the deputy insurance commissioner’s position on Nicolopoulos’ recommendation late last year. Bettencourt assumed his position on January 15.
Since taking office, Bettencourt’s tweets have focused on insurance offerings, support of sports teams, and retweets of the governor’s own tweets. The only business singled out was Schilling Beer: In an earlier post, Bettencourt said he is “celebrating #FathersDay2021 with my friends, @SchillingBeer.”
There have been no tweets about other small businesses that experienced an unfortunate situation — for example, the massive fire at Scamman Farm in Stratham in May. Perhaps it was his personal connection with his “friends” at Schilling Beer that prompted the tweet.
Indeed, Schilling Beer’s chief executive officer, Jeff Cozzens, is a supporter of Republican politicians. According to OpenSecrets.org, last year, Cozzens donated $400 to Friends of Chris Sununu, and $100 to Hillsborough Republican John Graham.