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Feds and state probe suspended county attorney's handling of funds

Union Leader Correspondent

December 10. 2013 9:20PM
A forfeiture account once managed by suspended Rockingham County Attorney James Reams is being eyed by state and federal investigators probing his office. (JAMES A. KIMBALL/FILE PHOTO)

BRENTWOOD - A forfeiture account once controlled by embattled Rockingham County Attorney James Reams is being scrutinized as part of the state and federal investigation into his office, the New Hampshire Union Leader has learned.

The Rockingham County Attorney Forfeiture Account has reaped thousands of dollars in federal asset forfeiture money and court-ordered fines from corporations that were prosecuted for state liquor violations or gambling offenses.

Reams' office has taken in roughly $139,890 in fines and seized cash from liquor and gambling prosecutions since August 2005, according to a review of court records.

Thousands of dollars of that money has been doled out to local police departments that aided in investigating the liquor-offense or gambling cases, while also covering expenses at the county attorney's office for staff training, equipment and office supplies, county finance records show.

Attorney General Joe Foster suspended Reams on the night of Nov. 6 pending the outcome of a state and federal investigation into management issues at his office.

Bank statements for the forfeiture account - obtained through a Right-to-Know request - show that $25,241.91 in electronic payments was made to an American Express card dating back to 2007.

County Commissioner Kevin Coyle said that the county has no detailed statements to the American Express card, and has not asked for one to date.

"As far as we know, it's not a county credit card," Coyle said.

Reams acknowledged in an interview that the credit card belongs to him.

He said the money paid to the credit card reimbursed him for travel expenses incurred while attending conferences held by the National District Attorney's Association.

"If I went to a meeting, it would cover airfare, hotel, per diem," Reams said. "A check would be written directly to the credit card company. I fronted all of those expenses and got reimbursed."

Last year, the account made $8,170.78 in electronic payments to the American Express card, bank records show.

Reams said he has maintained detailed records of the reimbursements, and that all uses of the money are permissible through federal guidelines for asset forfeiture funds. He said that his participation in the NDAA has brought more money back to New Hampshire in training than the cost of going to conferences, and has saved county taxpayers thousands.

Reams said the travel expenses only represent a small portion of the account's holdings.

"The vast majority of the money went right back to police departments," he said.

Fines add up

The Rockingham County Attorney's Office has won convictions against corporations for restaurants, bars or social clubs - largely through plea agreements - on an average of one case per year since 2005, court records show. Judges sitting in Rockingham County Superior Court routinely approved court orders that allowed Reams' office to deposit the money into the asset forfeiture account, court documents show.

As of this year, one liquor-offense case is pending in Rockingham County which stands to reap thousands of dollars in court fines for the forfeiture account.

New Adventure Entertainment LLC, the corporation for The Page Restaurant, is due in court on Dec. 18, and expected to plead guilty to a liquor-related offense connected to a fatal assault that happened on April 5. Details of a possible plea deal have not been made public.

An earlier plea offer made by prosecutors indicates that the business could have settled the case with a $75,000 fine, court records say.

Interim County Attorney James Boffetti said any fine money generated from The Page case will go the county's general fund, not the asset forfeiture account.

The latest statement from the forfeiture account shows a balance of about $11,000, Boffetti said.

Unique account

The Rockingham County Attorney Forfeiture Account - which also has a checkbook bearing the same name - is unique in New Hampshire.

The state's nine other county attorneys said in interviews that their office has no such account.

They also said the kind of liquor and gambling cases that in part funded Rockingham County's Forfeiture Account are rarely, if ever, pursued in their jurisdiction.

"I have been prosecuting for 31 years, and I've had one gambling case," Merrimack County Attorney Scott Murray said.

Murray and other county attorneys across the state questioned whether they had the legal authority to collect or spend money from such an account.

"The money we spend is approved by the county delegation," he said.

Sullivan County Attorney Marc Hathaway said his office considered charging a business for over-serving alcohol about two or three years ago, but ultimately declined to move forward with the prosecution.

He said that fine money in such cases would be handled like any other fine. It would be paid to the clerk, and sent onto the state or the county's general fund, he said.

"I'm not prepared to pass judgment," Hathaway said. "I just know it would be an exceedingly rare set of circumstances that we would have any money come into contact with our office. We are not a revenue center."

Hillsborough County Attorney Patricia LaFrance could recall only one gambling case pursued by her office in recent years.

"We didn't get any money from that case," she said.

She said if her office won a conviction against a corporation, the fine money would not be handled by her.

"We don't have any account," she said. "If we did get any kind of forfeiture, it goes into the county budget."

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