Former House speaker O'Brien helped Cornerstone with right-to-know request to DHHSBy JOHN DiSTASO
Senior Political Reporter
July 11. 2013 12:50PM
(Thursday, July 11, update:)
CONCORD -- Cornerstone Action executive director Ashley Pratte acknowledged Thursday that former House speaker William O'Brien helped her with a right-to-know request she submitted to the state Department of Health and Human Services earlier this week.
O'Brien, who is a state legislator and is exploring a run for Congress, made additions to and deletions from Pratte's letter that requests information about the hiring of, and assignments given to, Dawn Touzin.
Touzin has been a DHHS attorney for more than two years and is the former vice president for public policy and government affairs at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
Pratte has said she is concerned that Touzin's longtime advocacy for causes promoted by Planned Parenthood is influencing her role in the taxpayer-funded, $67,192-a-year post (see earlier story below).
Pratte emailed an early copy of the letter to UnionLeader.com and other media.
The word document shows that O'Brien made several additions and deletions to the letter, which was signed by Pratte.
Pratte said Thursday she went to O'Brien, an attorney, for "technical advice" on how to construct a right-to-know request since, she said, he issued several during his time as speaker.
"I'm not a lawyer and I figured I'd trust Bill with it," Pratte said. "I wanted to make sure that legally it made sense."
O'Brien said his involvement was "more as a private attorney answering questions and suggesting language.
"But from a political perspective, I'm as concerned as Cornerstone is that it looks like a long-standing advocate for liberal causes has been chosen by HHS as an attorney. A number of us are concerned that there may be public causes being pursued rather than public business.
"I'm certainly not saying there is any wrongdoing," O'Brien said. "But we would be very curious to find out the process they went through that resulted in the vice president for government affairs for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England being hired" as an attorney at the department.
The state Democratic Party spokesman Harrell Kirstein said O'Brien's involvement is further evidence that, "despite their pledges to re-brand after the last election, Republicans are still in lockstep with Bill O'Brien and his radical social agenda.
"Given his edits, it's clear that Bill O'Brien and Ashley Pratte are both engaged in what can only be described as a partisan witch hunt," Kirstein said.
Pratte has denied that politics prompted the right-to-know request, while Commissioner of Health and Human Services Nicholas Toumpas said, "My staff is not in the business of doing advocacy work.:
Meanwhile, PPNNE senior policy adviser Jennifer Frizzell said Thursday, "As the state's largest provider of women's preventive health services, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England regularly interacts with the NH Department of Health and Human Services.
"At the end of the legislative session the PPNNE Action Fund issued a statement which cited Medicaid Expansion as one of several legislative projects we worked on during this past year," Frizzell emailed UnionLeader.com
(Our earlier report, first posted on UnionLeader.com on Wednesday, follows.)
(Wednesday, July 10:)
CONCORD -- The head of a New Hampshire conservative group is concerned that a former key pro-choice advocate works for the state Department of Health and Human Services, and is seeking details on her hiring and her role in the taxpayer-funded post.
Ashley Pratte, executive director of the pro-life Cornerstone Action, has filed a right-to-know request with DHHS regarding Dawn Touzin, the former vice president for public policy and government affairs at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
Pratte said Cornerstone wants to know if Touzin's long-time advocacy for causes promoted by Planned Parenthood is influencing her role as an attorney at DHHS, but department commissioner Nicholas Toumpas said, "My staff is not in the business of doing advocacy work. That's not what they do."
The state Democratic Party called Pratte's move "a disgraceful witch hunt."
Touzin has been employed by DHHS since May 9, 2011 and is currently a service specialist, an unclassified position with a salary of $67,192, according to state personnel director Karen Hutchins.
Touzin, who did not return UnionLeader.com calls seeking comment, was identified in a recent news report as an attorney for the department, and Toumpas confirmed that is her role.
Pratte said she was unaware that Touzin was a state employee until she read the news report, which focused on hospitals signing up for Medicaid managed care, about a week ago.
She filed the right-to-know request this week, asking for specifics on her Touzin's assignments and projects and any correspondence between Touzin and Planned Parenthood and any other "third party organizations."
"It is an inescapable concern that (Touzin's) role as an attorney at DHHS may correlate with her previous position at PPNNE and may well constitute a continuation of that and other public advocacy she has undertaken on behalf of liberal organizations and causes," Pratte wrote in her request.
In an interview, Pratte said, "If she is working to advance these causes that she has worked for previously in her career, I think the public has a right to know that information."
Pratte said the main reason for the request was to obtain any communication between Touzin "and any third party organization, such as Planned Parenthood, regarding family planning, Medicaid expansion, Medicaid managed care, all topics that have recently become a big battle at the State House."
Pratte noted that soon after Cornerstone and fellow conservative groups Americans for Prosperity and Granite State Taxpayers held a news conference on the state budget last month, Planned Parenthood held a news conference on Medicaid expansion.
"I was curious as to why Medicaid expansion was a big issue for Planned Parenthood," Pratte said. "If there was any correspondence between DHHS and Planned Parenthood regarding Medicaid expansion, we would obviously like to know that."
DHHS commissioner Toumpas said he "won't speak specifically" about Touzin, but said, "My staff is not in the business of doing advocacy work. That's not what they do.
"We respond to the Legislature, we put forward information. But nobody in their role is doing any advocacy on the part of any cause that is out there," Toumpas said.
Toumpas said he forwarded Pratte's right-to-know request -- as he does any right-to-know request -- to DHHS chief counsel Mary Castelli.
The state Democratic Party criticized Pratte for the request.
"After the reckless Bill O'Brien and Jeb Bradley-led Legislature tried to de-fund Planned Parenthood, restrict access to insurance coverage for contraception, and slashed funding for family planning and women's health programs, voters responded by throwing them out of office," said party spokesman Harrell Kirstein. "Are Republicans and their far-right allies really still so obsessed with blocking access to affordable and critical health care services for New Hampshire women and families that they are now attacking a hardworking New Hampshire citizen for simply because she used to work for Planned Parenthood, an important provider of critical health care for families?
"The far right's relentless attacks on women's health care in New Hampshire need to stop. Responsible members of the NHGOP would condemn this petty and disgraceful witch hunt for what it is," said Kirstein.
Pratte responded, "Cornerstone is simply calling for transparency and clarity for HHS regarding Ms. Touzin's activity. With the recent battles over Medicaid expansion at the State House, her work as an attorney on the subject is relevant. This is not a witch hunt in any way, rather just an execution of the public's right to availability of these requested documents. Maintaining transparency in state departments and agencies should always be a priority."