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NH legislators say conflicts are unavoidable

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 18. 2013 12:06AM

CONCORD - New Hampshire's 424 state legislators come from a host of backgrounds. And with nearly any issue or bill, at least one or even 100 of them might be personally affected.

"Many people in the Legislature have conflicts of interest," said Rep. Neal Kurk, a Republican who has represented Weare since being elected in 1986.

The issue of conflict of interest came to the forefront last week when state Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, accepted a $180,000 job as the head of the New Hampshire Local Government Center. Many critics said Bragdon, by not resigning his role in the Senate, created a conflict of interest by agreeing to head an agency that is in a contentious battle - including a state Supreme Court lawsuit - with the state Bureau of Securities Regulation.

Bragdon on Friday announced he will resign his role as Senate president, but did not resign his seat in the Senate. He said again Friday that he would recuse himself from any issue or debate related to the LGC and said conflicts are to be expected in a citizen Legislature that pays its members $100 a year plus mileage and tolls.

Kurk and Rep. David Campbell, a Democrat from Nashua in his seventh term, each said many issues, such as pensions and tax reform, have broad implications for many House members.

The key, Campbell said, is whether a legislator would be uniquely affected, financially or otherwise, by a bill or debate, rather than it affecting a class of people, such as lawyers, firefighters or teachers.

"Unless you would be individually enriched by it ... then it isn't a conflict," he said.

And even when there is a conflict, "there is nothing that precludes these folks from participating or voting, so long as they disclose," Kurk said.

I do declare

If legislators believe they could have a conflict with a particular bill but want to participate in debates and votes, or if they wish to recuse themselves, they must file a declaration of intent with the clerk of their chamber.

This is how teachers can vote on education issues and how doctors, as well as trial attorneys, can vote on changes to medical malpractice laws.

"If everybody had to recuse themselves with every little thing that came along, there would be nobody left to vote on things," Bragdon said.

During his two-year term, former state Sen. Raymond White was by far the most prolific filer of declarations of intent, submitting 48 in the 2011 and 2012 sessions. He outpaced the rest of the Senate members combined during that time and nearly outpaced the 400-member House.

Not including White, senators filed a total of 31 disclosures in the 2011 and 2012 sessions, according to records kept online by the state Legislative Ethics Committee. During the 2013 session, just three senators filed a total of four disclosure forms. House members have filed 69 disclosure forms in the 2012 and 2013 sessions, with members recusing themselves a total of 50 times.

White owns an insurance and financial planning company, Cornerstone Benefit and Retirement Group. Anytime a bill in any way involved one of his clients or the state Insurance Department, he filed a declaration of intent stating his possible conflict and his intention to be involved in the legislation, he said.

"You name the issue, and (conflict) exists (at the State House)," White said. "The answer is disclosure. That's why I filed a gazillion of those things. If disclosure is the intent, then I was going to file a form every time."

Expertise versus conflicts

Rep. William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, who for two years served as House speaker, said he would ask all legislators for their resumes so he could place people in committees where their knowledge would be most beneficial.

"It's remarkable the amount of expertise and professional backgrounds of some of these people," he said.

White said the benefit of having a citizen Legislature is that the state "is getting all of this different expertise for $100 a year that they wouldn't get elsewhere."

Campbell agreed, saying the varied experience outweighs the risk of conflict.

"I think one of the great things about a citizen Legislature is that people bring various talents and professional experience to the table," Campbell said. "It's more of a strength of the institution of the House than a weakness."

O'Brien, though, said ensuring against all conflict is difficult, given how broad many bills and debates can be.

"It does make it really difficult to deal with the conflict issue," he said. "We've always relied on the goodwill of individual legislators. It's been left somewhat ambiguous. There are a lot of gray areas."

Campbell said he believes the sheer size of the House membership also helps guard against a class of people - such as lawyers like himself - from being able to dominate legislation for their benefit.

"They're outnumbered by the hundreds of others who are not in that profession," he said.

Ethical check

Should someone wish to complain that a legislator has a conflict that wasn't disclosed, the Legislative Ethics Committee is where the issue is decided. The committee handles all forms of ethical questions, from receipt of gifts to allegations of misuse of power to conflicts of interest.

"The committee is charged by statute with administering laws, guidelines and rules governing ethical conduct of legislators and legislative officers and staff," said committee Chairman Martin L. Gross, a Concord attorney.

Gross said the committee will issue interpretive rulings to clarify statutes and guidelines; provide advisory opinions at the request of individual legislators, legislative officers and staff involving ethics statutes and guidelines; and process complaints accusing legislators, officers or staff of violating ethics rules.

Any adult can lodge a complaint.

Richard M. Lambert, the committee's executive administrator, said the committee has received a total of 66 complaints in the 22 years it has existed. Of those, most were dismissed or informally resolved, he said. Six, though, resulted in recommendations of discipline. Union Leader staff reporter Mark Hayward contributed to this report.

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