PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The state’s Legislative Ethics Committee announced Tuesday that it agreed to allow a request for an ethics investigation to be withdrawn, but didn’t say who the complaint was against.
State Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, a member of the committee, wouldn’t confirm if the withdrawn complaint was against former state Rep. Troy Merner, who has since resigned and is facing criminal charges for serving the whole last House session after moving out his Lancaster district and as a selectman.
Rosenwald said investigations are conducted only on people still holding office. The ethics committee met in non-public session on the unnamed ethics investigation request, which was withdrawn.
“We don’t investigate people who are no longer in the legislature,” Rosenwald said.
On a separate matter in public session, the vote was 5-1 – with Rosenwald opposed – that Alissandra Murray, D-Manchester, should recuse herself from future votes if her employer is lobbying on a particular matter.
Murray sought future guidance on whether she should vote on legislation even indirectly related to her employment by the Reproductive Freedom Fund of New Hampshire.
The committee is made up of both House and Senate members and former legislators who are particularly versed in ethics issues, including Donna Sytek and Ned Gordon.
The purpose of the Reproductive Freedom Fund of New Hampshire is to raise money for those who need an abortion, arrange rides, hotel rooms and other support. Murray is not a lobbyist for them but handles social media and marketing issues.
With her attorney, Bill Christie, Murray maintained she voted on five reproductive rights bills, none of which were related to paid public abortions.
Murray said she did not serve as a lobbyist for the organization and there was no clear financial value to the bills she sponsored or supported.
She maintains a declaration of intent form was not necessary for any of her votes, but asked for an advisory declaration.
Murray confirmed she went to ethics training as a new legislator and signed the document all legislators sign which releases to the public information on where her money comes from.
Legislators are paid $100 a year plus mileage.
Rep. David Hess said the form indicates the need for disclosure if they receive income of more than $10,000 from an entity lobbying on a bill.
Former House Speaker Donna Sytek asked a ballpark figure for the number of people helped by RFFNH and Murray said over 500 people have been helped.
Rosenwald asked whether there were any bills whose purpose was to provide funding for abortions.
Murray said since she has been elected, there have been no bills relative to public funding of abortions.
Her attorney said considering there were no such bills, it might have been handled differently but in this case, a media report questioning Murray’s voting and her job prompted the review.
Ned Gordon, a former legislator and former judge, asked whether there might be some concern for voting on certain bills due to personal interest other than as a legislator.
Someone could be a union member and vote on some bills, her attorney Christie noted, but the central question is whether there is a direct impact to the financial benefit of the legislator.
“When I filled out the disclosure form, I thought that was me disclosing,” Murray said, “I didn’t see any clear conflict when I was voting on these bills.”
She noted, “We are here to represent the people including people who work for non-profits.”
It was noted that the organization’s lobbyist, Josie Pinto, had done a little lobbying on the bills and the organization spent less than $1,000 on her pay for those matters.
Rosenwald said it was her understanding that when you start a new term as a legislator you have to fill out the financial form and unless there are changes and additions that is the information.
“Maybe I have been doing it wrong for 19 years,” she said.
Rosenwald said after the vote she did not think the advisory opinion would be helpful.
Hess stressed, “We are being asked for an advisory opinion. We are not responding to any complaint…and it is prospective only.”
Sytek made a comparison to a matter of a labor union president who was a legislator and “we told him he could not vote on anything related to education….relative to his members’” financial gain.
Rosenwald argued that the mission of Murray’s employer is narrow.
“They lobbied on five bills. But none had to do with funding,” Rosenwald said.
Hess said the mere fact they lobbied on it would be related to their interest in the subject matter.
Sytek read a law indicating if there is a fiduciary interest, if the legislator was a board member or owner, then they would need to recuse and said she would be more in favor of public disclosure of a personal connection to an issue rather than recusal from voting in Murray’s case.
Gordon suggested that they distinguish when recusal would be appropriate rather than disclosure.
And the commission indicated that if the organization is lobbying on the bills, then recusal should be the standard. The vote was 5-1.
The legislature created the ethics committee in 1991 to hear questions about ethics related to the legislative members and make determinations and announce violations.
If former Rep. Merner had not resigned, it is likely that the case of his domicile would have gone to this committee, and perhaps it did Tuesday, but at the request of the complainant it was withdrawn, remained anonymous and the committee accepted the request in public session.
Committee members include House Reps. Bob Lynn, Janet Wall, David Hess, Senators Ruth Ward and Rosenwald and appointed Public Members Sytek and Gordon.
Gordon, who served in both chambers and is a retired judge, said there has never been a case similar to the Merner matter in his memory. He declined to elaborate.
Merner, a Republican, was arrested Nov. 28 and charged with a Class B felony count of wrongful voting, and misdemeanor charges of theft by deception, unsworn falsification and tampering with public records. He stepped down from his legislative position in September and from his role as a selectman in Lancaster, as he confirmed he had moved out of the district and was living in Carroll.
But that is not the story he apparently told leadership before the start of last session.
An affidavit in support of the arrest indicates the Attorney General’s Office had investigated an earlier complaint against Merner for living out of district and had notified the chief operating officer of the General Court before the last session began.
In spite of that ongoing investigation, whose allegations were being investigated, Merner voted and collected mileage reimbursement.
He voted in several matters where the almost equally divided House had a slight Republican margin for victory and in at least one case, was likely the deciding vote on a controversial matter.
Republican House Speaker Sherman Packard’s office issued an email to House members Dec. 4, to “provide you with some insight into the reasonable approach that the Speaker’s office took in relation to this important matter. The integrity of the New Hampshire General Court is paramount to our representative form of government.”
Packard did not post the letter as he sometimes does on the General Court website which is available to all members of the public. It was just a note to House members that was obtained by InDepthNH.org, and the memo does not disclose what was contained in the Dec. 6, 2022, memo from the Department of Justice, likely related to evidence of what was known and when by the Department of Justice.
The investigation into the matter continues, according to the Attorney General Office, who has refused to release the memo citing an ongoing investigation.
House members, current and prior, are waiting to hear more information, including state Rep. Jonah Wheeler, D-Peterborough, who was giving his mother a tour of the State House grounds Tuesday and was curious about the ethics hearings as most of the campus was a ghost town Tuesday.
“I think the Speaker needs to give us a solid explanation,” Wheeler said, “If he did believe Merner was telling the truth and asked him to stay,” it is one thing, but it could be a “serious” matter.
“Hopefully, the Speaker continues to be transparent about it,” Wheeler said.