By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Saying he has made mistakes in his personal life for which he is sorry and has grown, David J. “D.J.” Bettencourt of Salem said he is “humbled by the trust and confidence of the governor” in being nominated the state’s next Commissioner of Insurance at a public hearing Wednesday.
The five-member Executive Council will decide, likely in two weeks, whether the 39-year-old should succeed Christopher Nicolopoulos of Bow who resigned. The hearing was held in the Executive Council Chamber at the State House.
Giving him a strong endorsement was Attorney General John Formella, who said he has watched Bettencourt grow and work hard for the state, though he admitted he at first had doubts about the wisdom of Gov. Chris Sununu who chose him for policy director given Bettencourt’s past mistakes.
If confirmed, Bettencourt would earn a salary of $133,648 for a term that would end on June 9, 2028.
For the past three years he has been Deputy Commissioner of Insurance.
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.
Last year, Bettencourt was also charged with domestic violence and was placed on paid leave but returned to work soon after charges were dropped.
He said his wife of 11 years, Shannon Bettencourt has remained by his side along with their three children. He said he has grown from that experience but it was “deeply private.”
He did publicly apologize for his actions in 2012 relating to falsified documents and needing to step down from an elected position of leadership.
He rejected assertions that Sununu nominated him because of their longtime relationship.
“The governor did not ask me to come to the insurance department as a favor or a reward,” Bettencourt said.
He said criticism that he has little insurance experience is perhaps just, but over the past three years as deputy, he said the team at the department has worked well to move licensing issues forward.
He said the staff of almost 90 “are a credit to the state” and have worked during his tenure there to issue well over 2,000 insurance licenses. The tax division has collected over $150 million and the team has processed 1,000 consumer complaints, he said.
Bettencourt said in the future, the state needs to ensure a strong insurance market. But he acknowledged it is a small state compared to others and the state cannot be in a position of pushing companies out.
He said he wants to make New Hampshire “the gold standard for mental health parity” and expressed his commitment to play a leading role and wants to take action to protect small group markets for affordable employee insurance.
Also, Bettencourt said it is important to work with hospitals on insurance payments in a timely manner and assist nonprofits to find coverages “to do the critical work they do.”
He noted recruitment and retention in the department is a major goal.
“We have set up succession plans,” Bettencourt said and cultivated mentorships in the department.
“It is critical that we make employees feel valued.”
There have been 19 positions available and all but five are now filled, and a record number of those are employees who have seen promotions within the department.
“Hopefully, it is an indication that my team is happy with the department and hopeful of the direction we are going,” Bettencourt said.
Modernization is also important for the department and recently, he said it was able to get resources for a new website.
Attorney General Formella spoke in favor of the nomination saying Bettencourt has overcome his mistakes and grown from them.
When he met him, Formella said he knew “the mistakes he made” in 2012 and wondered about whether he was a good hire as the governor’s policy director.
“I have seen him grow from his mistakes. D.J. is not perfect,” he said. “But he is absolutely worthy of this position.”
He said that it was Bettencourt who talked with him about the 2012 incident.
“He said ‘I screwed up…’ There was no reason he had to say this to me…I didn’t know the guy. And he was forthright from the beginning.
“I think we are living in a moment…that lacks a lot of honesty and authenticity and that is not D.J. He’s not perfect. But I have seen D.J. in the past six years, grow professionally,” Formella said. He said the two have become friends.
“He is a great father. He cares about his family,” the attorney general said. “He has grown as a father. I think, while I have not made some of the mistakes D.J. has made, I would hope I would own them and work as hard as he has,” to make amends, Formella said.
But state Rep. Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, said Bettencourt is smart but unqualified for the job as Commissioner of Insurance.
He said his performance as deputy commissioner has been unimpressive. Horrigan said Bettencourt got caught in a lie “and it still matters.”
While he said he regretted coming in and testifying in opposition, “making him commissioner is too big a risk to make.
“I don’t think you are doing him a favor in giving him this job,” Horrigan said.
Former Insurance Commissioner Roger Sevigny, who for 16 years was the commissioner before retiring in 2018 spoke in support of the nomination and said Bettencourt has a strong understanding of what it takes to do that job.
“You can’t overregulate the industry because you will push them out,” and as a small state that is a bad idea, Sevigny said.
Dr. Wayne F. Lesperance Jr., president of New England College, said Bettencourt is a tireless advocate for policy.
He said he has watched his commitment to the state grow with his influence in the Sununu Administration.
Lesperance noted that Bettencourt is a dedicated and organized person and that as a lecturer at NEC he received high praise from students.
Bettencourt was given an opportunity to address the council for questions and said, “I have made mistakes in the conduct of my personal life. I should have done better…I take full complete and unequivocal responsibility.
“I will work every day incredibly hard to be a better person than I was yesterday,” Bettencourt said.
Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, D-Concord, who is running for governor as a Democrat, said some people she has spoken with feel that the department favors the insurance industry over consumers.
“We are going to protect insurance markets and consumers,” Bettencourt said. “But we will do so fairly…we have to work collaboratively with the carriers because we are a small state.”
Warmington said one of criticisms she has heard is Bettencourt’s lack of insurance experience.
“I do appreciate that,” Bettencourt said, but that people have “full confidence in me” from the consumer to the insurance industry.
Warmington told Bettencourt that in 2012 he admitted creating false documents in law school.
“Why should the public trust you?” Warmington asked.
Bettencourt said: “Let me first say I am sorry for the disgraceful choices I made.
“It was wrong. I didn’t make excuses for it. I own my mistakes and work to mature from them.”
Bettencourt called it “one of the worst periods of my life and in some ways some of the most important.”
Warmington noted he was arrested last year and charged with pulling his wife out of her bed.
He said the incident “escalated” and it was “thoroughly embarrassing. We both deeply regret the incident. The issue was dropped. We have both learned critical lessons,” and one he said is “trust. It is a private matter.”
Executive Councilor David Wheeler of Milford, a Republican, asked about an insurance product called “Health Shares” and whether there would be regulations that would shut this down.
“They can’t afford anything else,” Wheeler said of constituents’ worries about overregulation.
Bettencourt said he would not shut it down but regulate “bad actors.”
“I am not looking at trying to drive these entities out of this state,” Bettencourt said.
Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, asked about auto insurance given that people have been driving less, why are insurance premiums still going up.
Bettencourt said cars today are way more high tech so the costs to repair are higher. Another issue is supply chain and fewer rental cars, which have to be extended when repairs take longer.
And, Bettencourt said there are inflationary pressures on premiums.
“The good news is New Hampshire’s market is incredibly competitive,” Bettencourt said.
He has been involved in the governor’s plan for paid family leave which is a voluntary system.
The council will likely vote on Bettencourt’s nomination when they meet next at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, Sept. 20.