By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The state’s Executive Council has scheduled public hearings in the coming weeks for a number of nominations made by Gov. Chris Sununu, including that of his longtime political confidant, David J. “D.J.” Bettencourt of Salem to be Commissioner of the state Department of Insurance.
Now Deputy Commissioner of Insurance, Bettencourt would succeed Christopher Nicolopoulos of Bow who resigned. If confirmed, he would earn a salary of $133,648 for a term that would end on June 9, 2028.
Bettencourt was the House Majority Leader in 2012 when he resigned amid a scandal for falsifying internship documents while studying at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. Bettencourt was also charged with domestic violence in 2022 and was placed on paid leave but returned to work soon after when the charge was dropped.
When asked about Bettencourt’s nomination, Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, D-Concord, said:
“I have received a lot of public feedback about this nominee and look forward to asking questions at his public hearing.”
Bettencourt worked as field coordinator for the New Hampshire Republican State Committee and the RNC Victory Program in 2016. He was then tapped in 2017 to be Sununu’s policy director.
He led the governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force during the pandemic and was then hired deputy commissioner of insurance in January 2021.
In his May 12 letter to Sununu, Bettencourt said the department of 87 employees has gone through four different commissioners in seven years and, “I appreciate that you are concerned about the current morale within the department.”
He suggested that if made commissioner he would request “the New Hampshire Employee Assistance Program conduct a workplace culture audit of the department as well as put together a comprehensive employee engagement survey. This will allow us to better understand the issues impacting employees and what steps the leadership at the department must take to improve overall morale.”
The first hearing is for Mark E. Howard of Manchester to serve as Chief Justice for the State Superior Court scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 23 at the Seashell Pavilion Conference Center at Hampton Beach at 2:45 p.m. Howard would replace Tina Nadeau who resigned.
It follows a council meeting at 10 a.m. and a meeting of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transport at 1 p.m.
Howard’s hearing will be followed at 4 p.m. for a hearing for the nomination of Tanya Spony of Brookline to serve as Justice for the State Circuit Court.
The next opportunity for the public to comment to the council on nominees will be held Sept. 6 in the Executive Council Chamber first at 2 p.m. for Dorothy E. Walch of Northwood to serve as Justice for the State of New Hampshire Circuit Court and at 3:15 p.m. for the hearing for Bettencourt.
Sununu has indicated he will not seek a record fifth term as governor and has about 17 months left to serve.
Sununu has said he will focus on the job he has and has not announced his future plans, though he has ruled out a run for the 2024 Republican nomination for president.
The openings Sununu is filling are based largely on resignations.
Howard wrote to the council Aug. 1 that it was an honor and privilege to be nominated by the governor to serve as the next Chief Justice of the Superior Court and if confirmed, “I would fully embrace the awesome responsibility to oversee the delivery of fair and meaningful justice to the citizens of our State efficiently and effectively.”
He is currently supervisory justice of the Strafford County Superior Court in Dover and has served as a judge and lawyer in the state for 36 years beginning as a law clerk for the late NH Supreme Court Justice William Batchelder of Plymouth.
He went on to be a homicide prosecutor at the Attorney General’s Office, then as a civil litigation trial lawyer before heading to the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Hampshire where he focused on violent crime and narcotics prosecution.
In 2015, Howard was nominated by former governor and now U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan, D-NH to the Superior Court bench.
In addition to his supervisory role, Howard has been a judge full time in the Strafford County Drug Treatment Court, “a very different kind of judging,” he wrote.
Another nominee, Attorney Tanya Lynn Spony (legally Tanya L. Mikolajczuk) graduated from UNH School of Law in 2012. She said there are two sides to every story and she would remain objective and make informed, sound decisions. Empathy is another important quality for the job as a judge which she said she possesses.
Walch is also a nominee of Gov. Sununu. She is currently a prosecutor in the domestic violence unit of the Manchester City Solicitor who is a graduate of the former Franklin Pierce Law Center, now UNH School of Law in 2005.
She said a litigant should be able to leave the courtroom feeling as if the court’s decision was “based on the law and the evidence and not personal bias.”
Typically, judicial nominees and department commissioners meet with the five councilors individually before their hearings.
They get to make an opening statement of their interest and qualities to have the job, are then individually questioned by councilors in public and then the public gets a chance to tell the counselors whether they support or disagree with the governor’s nomination.
They do not take a vote after or at the hearing but usually during the next scheduled council meeting following the hearing, usually about two weeks after the hearing.
There are some exceptions to commissioners not getting public hearings, the most recent, for that of Lori Weaver, the new commissioner of Health and Human Services.
Executive Councilor Joseph Kenney, R-Wakefield, wrote Wednesday that the council held a public hearing before Weaver became acting DHHS Commissioner once the governor nominated her. She replaced Lori Shibinette who resigned before the end of her term.
“Having served as Acting DHHS Commissioner, the Council felt there was no need for an additional public hearing,” Kenney explained. “Also, while it is a standing tradition to hold a public hearing on Commissioner nominations, it is not statutorily required. The council has had a long-standing practice of transparency and public input and has chosen to conduct public hearings in regards to Commissioner positions.
“The PUC Commissioners are statutorily required along with judicial nominations to have public hearings,” he noted.
“I look forward to the upcoming public hearings on our three judicial nominations.
“Insurance Deputy Commissioner D.J. Bettencourt has served over two years in his current position and prior to that, he served as the Policy Director for Governor Sununu.
“I have always had good interactions and communication from Deputy Commissioner Bettencourt and I look forward to his public hearing as well,” Kenney wrote in an email.