Speaker Packard and Deputy Host ‘Invitation Only’ News Conference Defending Actions in Merner Case

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Twitter photo of the invitation to the "invitation only" press conference

House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry.

By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org

CONCORD – House Speaker Sherman Packard and Deputy Speaker Steve Smith held an “invitation only” press conference Wednesday regarding former Republican Rep. Troy Merner, who allegedly served the entire last House session after moving out of Lancaster and the district he was elected to represent.

InDepthNH.org and the Boston Globe were among those not invited. According to an article reporting on the secretive news conference, the NHJournal, New Hampshire Public Radio and Union Leader reporters attended the news conference in the Speaker’s office.

Packard and Smith didn’t return InDepthNH.org’s request for an interview or information about the press conference or a handout reportedly distributed to reporters about the Merner case.

Merner, 63, of Carroll, was scheduled to be arraigned Thursday at Coos County Superior Court, but has waived arraignment and is next expected in court March 14, 2024, for a dispositional hearing, according to court records.

Merner has been charged with one class B felony count of wrongful voting, and misdemeanor charges of theft by deception, unsworn falsification and tampering with public records. Merner has declined repeated requests to tell his side of the story.

Merner’s attorney Jared Bedrick declined to detail what’s happening in the case. Bedrick, who has been nominated for a Circuit Court judgeship, said he has arranged for someone to take over representing Merner if his nomination is confirmed by the Executive Council.

Mike Garrity, Attorney General John Formella’s spokesman, confirmed that Merner waived arraignment, but declined to comment on whether a plea deal could be in the works.

“Our investigation is active and ongoing,” Garrity said, confirming that it is being conducted by the department’s Public Integrity Unit.

The “invitation only” release about Wednesday’s press conference was apparently sent out Tuesday with specific directions not to share it, embargoing it until the 10:30 a.m. press conference.

InDepthNH.org learned about the press conference on Wednesday after Globe reporter Steven Porter posted a copy on Twitter, saying he wasn’t invited, but apparently obtained a copy of it.

In red capital letters across the top, Packard’s release says ENBARGOED UNTIL 12.27.23 10:30 a.m. EST PRESS AVAILABILITY

“Speaker Sherman Packard and Deputy Speaker Steve Smith will be holding press availability by invitation only on Wednesday 12/27/23 at 10:30 a.m. to discuss House Member qualifications and relative discussion points.

“There will be a Q&A session after the remarks. This will be in the Speaker’s Office. Please RSVP to let me know you will be attending the press avail…”

“As a reminder this is embargoed until 12.27.23 at 10:30 a.m. EST. Do not forward or share this email communication. Instructions: I will meet you in the reception area (Room 312) with relative handouts before the press availability.”

According to the NHJournal story, there was little new information released by Packard or Smith beyond what was sent out Dec. 4 quoting the “Speaker’s Office,” not Packard himself, about the office having done nothing wrong in handling the Merner case.

Critics were furious when public documents revealed that the Attorney General’s Office notified Terry Pfaff, the COO of the General Court the day before House members were sworn in for the last session, meaning Merner voted the whole time before Packard asked for his resignation in September.

A Dec. 6, 2022, email from Deputy General Counsel Myles Matteson to Pfaff, outlined a credible complaint that Merner didn’t live in the Lancaster district.

The email, copied to former Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards, said when Merner was interviewed at his new wife’s home in Carroll, he denied living there full-time.

“During the course of the interview, (Merner) was not consistent in describing where he had been residing over the prior months, though he indicated that he claimed domicile at his office address of 80 Elm Street, Lancaster.

“He stated that he spends some nights there as it has a sleeping area. He did not provide further details substantiating his claim to be living at his office address. He did state that he was ‘in transition’ and looking to move back to Lancaster with his wife,” Matteson wrote.

The Attorney General’s Office notified Speaker Packard and the public on Sept. 18 of Merner’s domicile situation. Packard said then that he immediately sought and received Merner’s resignation from the House. Merner also resigned from the Lancaster selectboard. Merner was arrested Nov. 28.

The arrest affidavit can be read here: https://indepthnh.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/merner-affidavit-signed.pdf

 With Republicans holding a very slim majority in the House, Democrats claimed Merner’s vote killed at least one bill that would have placed the Education Freedom Account program under the oversight of the state Department of Education.

And Merner had reportedly told others that House leadership told him to keep his seat and continue voting after he moved to Carroll because they needed his vote. Merner didn’t say who in leadership told him to keep voting, according to news reports.

The New Hampshire Constitution is clear that House members must resign if they move out of their elected district.

The NHJournal story Wednesday said: “Packard (R-Londonderry) met with a small group of reporters to clear the air, set the record straight, and end the discussion about what he did and did not do when he first learned Merner did not live in his Lancaster district.

“’We had to let the process play out since it was under investigation by the (New Hampshire Department of Justice,’)” Packard said. “’I never talked to Troy Merner the whole time about his residency.’

“Saying it would be the last time he planned to talk about Merner, Packard often sounded defensive during the meeting with NHPR, the Union Leader, and NHJournal, saying he could not have taken action when his office learned last December that Merner’s residency was under investigation by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.”

House Minority Leader Matt Wilhelm, D-Manchester, said Wednesday he had nothing to add when asked for comment.

Two former state lawmakers, Peter Burling, a Democrat from Cornish, and Mark Hounsell, a former Republican turned Independent, from Conway, have filed right-to-know requests to find out who knew what when about Merner’s alleged deception.

On Wednesday, Burling said a reporter who attended the press conference told him that Packard wondered why Burling was complaining when a similar situation arose 33 years ago when Burling was a freshman House member. It involved a former Democratic Rep. Cindy McGovern, who lived temporarily outside her district, Burling said.

“They investigated her living arrangement and said it was fine and a unanimous voice vote approved her membership in the House,” Burling said, adding he believes the Republican leadership is trying to deliberately confuse the issue.

“Confronted with the results of a bunch of bad decisions, the Speaker and Republican leadership are compounding their nonsense. Their continued effort to cover up what they’ve done results in an absurd claim that somehow the Cindy McGovern situation was comparable. It wasn’t. They have covered up criminal behavior and still refuse to let the public know the role they played to let an unqualified person sit in the House. It isn’t over,” Burling said. “There has to be an end to this that involves full disclosure to the public not just the public being left in dark.”

The press conference Wednesday “absolutely clarifies” that House leadership engaged in a cover up, Burling said.

Hounsell called on the Democratic leadership to get answers or they are “just as guilty as House Republican leadership.”

Hounsell said there are two tracks, one legal and one political.

“The legal will be drawn out by motions, discovery, inconvenient schedules, inconvenient reschedules, briefs and blah, blah, blah serving the bar, the system, and delaying justice. I recognize the importance of this, but justice delayed is justice denied,” Hounsell said.

“The people of NH have the right and the need for immediate correction to this breach of trust.

“I hope the members of the Democratic caucus have the boldness, the resolve, the courage, and the wisdom to flush out the corrupt political ne’er-do-wells and their corrupt participation in Merner’s crime. They are unfit to be referred to as being honorable and must be evicted from the House as soon as possible before the House session advances very far,” Hounsell said.

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