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Panel to probe Portsmouth police officer’s windfall

Union Leader Correspondent

August 19. 2014 8:25PM

PORTSMOUTH — The city council endorsed an independent investigation into how a police sergeant became the primary benefactor in an estimated $2.6 million estate of a 93-year-old woman.

Residents applauded the prospect of an independent probe into police Sgt. Aaron Goodwin. But some residents and city officials want a review that remains open to the public and not under the control of the police department or commission.

The police commission is expected to assemble a three-member investigative panel in the coming weeks.

“It can’t be a quiet, behind-the-scenes investigation,” said resident Joe Onosko, a neighbor to the late Geraldine Webber.

Webber’s former neighbors and other concerned residents have been pushing city officials to look into how Goodwin developed a relationship with Webber. They want to know what possible role he played in revising her will to make him the primary beneficiary prior to her death on Dec. 11, 2012. Goodwin has denied any wrongdoing.

Onosko applauded city councilors’ 9-0 decision Monday night, but said many questions still need to be answered before the panel can move forward with its investigation.

“We need to have many people involved in the selection of the committee members,” Onosko said. He also questioned whether the panel should be larger, and tap the expertise of an outside company such as Municipal Resources Inc.

The decision for an investigation comes six days after the police commission voted 3-0 not to accept a settlement hammered out by a court-appointed mediator that would have given $425,000 to Goodwin. The city’s fire and police departments — also beneficiaries of Webber’s estate — were poised to receive roughly $400,000 each from the settlement.

City Councilor Brad Lown said he believes that the public needs to learn the facts behind changes made to Webber’s estate, and even the police department’s actions.

But Lown, a lawyer, also believes the city should have accepted the mediated settlement before legal costs whittle the estate down to nothing. Lown said cases like Goodwin’s are hard to prove.

“I don’t think the public understands the distinct possibility of the second will being upheld,” Lown said.

Lown drafted a proposed ordinance regarding bequests and gifts to city employees. One part of the proposed rule would require that the donor “has a relationship with such employee that is not based on or primarily related to the official duties of such employer.”

Lown said the proposal would not have prevented the Goodwin situation, but could possibility stop similar situations in the future. The city’s legal department is now reviewing the ordinance, Lown said.

Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine pushed fellow city councilors in a memo dated last week to form an independent review panel that would include the state Attorney General’s Office.

Splaine called for a review of the city’s code of ethics for employees, appointed and elected officials.

“This is not so much a personnel matter as it is one of process and procedure — the process of city government and its interactions with our citizenry, and the procedure of how we guarantee integrity and credibility in our government,” Splaine said in his memo.

The controversy about Goodwin’s inheritance has not only spurred concerns about the city’s ethics policy, but put renewed attention on the autonomy of the city’s police commission.

Portsmouth’s former mayor, Robert Shaines, said he was part of a panel in the early 1990s that gave the police commission independent control of the police department employees.

“The police commission administers the police department, not the city council, not the manager,” said Shaines, a lawyer whose partner represents some parties in Webber’s contested estate. “It’s not the same in every city.”

Shaines said if he was a member of the commission when the Goodwin issue arose, he would have immediately called for an independent investigation instead of waiting months to take action.

Onosko said after the Goodwin probe is complete, residents should take a second look at the commission’s powers.

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