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6 months into job, AG Joseph Foster talks policies

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 23. 2013 9:19PM
Photographs of former attorney generals line the wall outside of Attorney General Joseph Foster's office in Concord. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD - It wasn't the call Joseph A. Foster expected. The governor was on the line letting him know Attorney General Michael A. Delaney would leave office after his term expired at the end of March.

"And the next thing (she said) was, 'Would you be interested?'?" Foster, 54, recounted Gov. Maggie Hassan's mid-March conversation during a recent interview.

"I was surprised," said the Nashua Democrat, who spent 29 years as a corporate lawyer specializing in bankruptcy cases with McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton law firm in Manchester and had no prior experience as a criminal prosecutor.

For Foster, being in charge of the state's law firm and serving as its top law enforcement officer became the perfect blend of law and public service that the former state Senate majority leader craved.

In the six months Foster has been on the job, his office has responded to 15 homicides, has been at the forefront of a massive search for Conway teen Abigail Hernandez, whose Oct. 9 disappearance has drawn national attention, and is investigating Rockingham County Attorney James Reams and temporarily stripped him of his prosecutorial duties while the federal-state probe is ongoing.

Foster's office also has investigated four shootings involving police officers. Two ended in civilians being killed - sparking controversy not only for the circumstances surrounding the homicides, but also his office's refusal to disclose the names of the officers involved until the investigations are complete - a task that can take several weeks to more than three months.

Stands by practice

Foster defends his office's practice to withhold the names of police officers involved in shootings until his criminal prosecutors complete their investigations.

He noted it withheld the name of a Manchester man who fatally shot a home invader in June until the investigation was complete.

"It has resulted in full and complete reports. I don't see any need to change it. I understand the public's desire to know ... I also respect the work that this office does and, when the reports are done, they are done well and there is a feeling that it results in a more complete product and will reduce interference from outside forces," Foster explained during a interview at his office Thursday.

Asked how disclosing the name of a shooter could impede the quality of an investigation, Foster replied, "I would suspect that people may be less willing to be interviewed and talk, and I also would suspect that, if you knew who the officers were, you - reporters generally - there may be things an investigative reporter would do, as well."

Foster, however, said he would review with criminal prosecutors their reasons for wanting to keep these names from the public until investigations are complete - a practice that appears to only have gained traction in the last decade. A review of newspaper accounts from 1989 through 2001 revealed at least a dozen fatal and non-fatal officer-involved shootings in which authorities disclosed the names of the officer and the suspect within days - often within 24 hours of the incident. In most cases, the names were made public while investigations were ongoing.

They included the high-profile and controversial 1989 fatal shooting of Bruce Lavoie by Hudson police Sgt. Stephen Burke, which led to changes in how police trained for drug raids; the 1997 gun battle in which Epsom Police Officer Jeremy Charron was killed; the 1997 wounding of a fugitive rapist Charles Stevens from California, who was cornered in Londonderry and shot with an M-16 fired by a local police officer; and the fatal shooting of state police Sgt. James Noyes during a 1994 gunfight.

But when the Attorney General's Office refused to release the name of the Salem police officer who accidentally shot a colleague in the shoulder during a traffic stop in 2003 six days earlier, then-Senior Assistant Attorney General William Delker claimed the Attorney General's Office "typically" does not release names until "we understand exactly what happened and we've conducted all our interviews."

"It has been done that way as long as I can remember," Delker told the New Hampshire Union Leader at the time. He said there was no written procedure or rule mandating the practice.

Will seek answers

While Foster said criminal bureau prosecutors believe this practice "is the best way to get a full, complete and accurate investigation done," he said: "I will speak to (them) to find out, if I can...."

His office has completed investigations of three of the four officer-involved shootings that occurred under his watch. Three were fatal; two of those resulted in civilian homicides.

One of the most controversial was the Sept. 30 shooting of Wendy Lawrence of Canterbury by state police Trooper Chad Lavoie. Lawrence fled in her car after state police pulled her over on Interstate 89 in Hopkinton, collided into a jersey barrier on the highway, and later led police on a high-speed chase on Interstate 93 that ended on a Manchester side street. Lawrence was shot after she rammed cruisers that blocked her in, refused Lavoie's command to stop and continued to drive toward him. The Attorney General's Office ruled the shooting justified when it released its report two weeks later.

The sole remaining case still under investigation involves the Aug. 14 fatal shooting of a suspected heroin dealer, Alex Cora DeJesus, 35, at a Weare shopping plaza during some type of undercover drug operation that also involved confidential informants. To date, none of the names of the officers involved have been made public.

"The people have been working hard on it," Foster said. "I spent a fair amount of time meeting with them from time to time as the investigation has been progressing. Some of those officers have been interviewed more than once."

Asked whether their stories match up, Foster replied: "The investigation is ongoing."

"I do believe we're nearing the end of our investigation, and I'm hopeful that it will be done by the end of the month," he added.

Other matters

Foster, who served three terms in the state Senate and 1½ terms in the House, said he would like to expand the Consumer Protection Division - a move he said would help both businesses and consumers - and increase the number of attorneys on staff.

With 58 civil and criminal attorneys, the Attorney General's Office is the third- or fourth-largest law firm in the state. It also has 13 paralegals, eight investigators and 41 secretaries, legal assistants and other support staff.

Foster notes the number of staff attorneys has remained nearly static since 1984, when there were 55, even though the population grew by about 300,000 in that time and the number of cases and claims brought against the state increased.

Foster has been addressing groups statewide about the office and its varied functions. "What I've been saying is first, I want to make it the best law firm it can be," he said. This would involve advocating for an increase in the number of staff attorneys. He said he would like to see 65 to 70 attorneys working in the office.

"I don't expect that to happen in just a single budget. It may not happen during my term either," he added of his four-year term, which ends March 31, 2017.

"The amount and quality of work that is turned out from here with the amount of resources we have I think is extraordinary," Foster said.

Search for Abby

State prosecutors have been among those at the forefront of the search for Abigail Hernandez, 15, since her disappearance Oct. 9.

"I have gone up there a few times," Foster said. "The level of effort and coordination among federal, state and local (law enforcement) is extraordinary. ... The citizens would be very proud if they saw what I saw, and I have not seen this before," Foster said.

Foster acknowledged some initial pieces of information released by law enforcement later proved untrue - such as the last time Hernandez' cellphone was used and whether Hernandez made it home before she disappeared.

"I know law enforcement was giving you the best information that they had at all of those times," he said. "Something changed. ... They believed one thing and later they came to believe another," he added, saying he could not elaborate.

A Financial Fraud Unit created by his predecessor is being organized, he said.

Foster said he would like to expand the Consumer Protection Division. Consumer protection is one of those things that, if you have it and if you exercise the power right, there is a real deterrent factor," he said. Business would benefit from it as well as consumers because "if your competition is cheating, you're not competing on a level playing field."

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