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December 8, 2004, 7:40 A.M.

Here is a great link to a press release from the office of Elliott Spitzer, New York’s Attorney General, about a recent settlement with UnumProvident, a disability insurance carrier, and several of its subsidiaries regarding claims handling practices.

December 7, 2004, 8:20 P.M.

I have given some more thought to my article in this week’s Sun about the current ethics scandal in the Legislature (and Governor’s Council). I just don’t buy the excuses and explanations from the politicians involved. The law is simple, clear and easy to follow. Lawmakers have simply ignored it because it was inconvenient or because it would draw attention to their support from individuals or entities that do business with the government. There needs to be a thorough, aggressive investigation of payments to elected officials. They ought to be charged if their actions are in violation of the statute. I don’t buy the “I didn’t know about the reporting requirement” excuse. There are just too many people who do know and who do comply. Somebody like Gene Chandler can’t even pass the snicker test with that lame excuse. The more I think about this issue, the more it riles me. It is very easy to comply with the statute, and it is very easy to know of its existence. If the salary and per diem are not enough for doing the job, that is one issue. Taking money from people who are going to be looking for favors later is another. It just smacks of corruption.

December 6, 2004, 9:20 P.M.

No Free Lunch: Not surprisingly, there is a law in this state that requires all state and county officials to disclose in an annual statement any “gift” that he or she receives, the value of which exceeds $50.00. The statute, NH RSA 15-B, is not an obscure part of a little-known law. It is an entire chapter of state law entitled, “Gifts, Testimonials, and Honorariums.” It's pretty easy to find.

The statute is fairly detailed, but easy to read. It contains 6 sections, and it even provides a form for the required disclosure (NH RSA 15-B:3). Knowingly failing to file the form, or filing a false form, is a misdemeanor according to NH RSA 15-B:5. Despite the simplicity of this requirement, it appears that as many as 100 of the 400 members of the New Hampshire House failed to file disclosure forms in 2003. Among those who did file the forms, several have apparently filed false forms.

This issue has recently come to light because of the investigation of former House Speaker, Gene Chandler, for legal and ethical violations of state statutes and House rules relative to reporting gifts. Chandler apparently raised approximately $64,000 in “gifts” or “honoraria” through a so-called “Friends” committee that threw an annual corn roast fundraiser for Chandler. Chandler has said that he did not know that the money had to be reported and has withdrawn his name from consideration for Speaker of the House.

More recently, Executive Councilor Ruth Griffin has come under scrutiny for her failure to report (or pay taxes on) $80,000 raised by the “Friends of Ruth Griffin” committee. This money was apparently raised at receptions in the seacoast area from supporters, lobbyists, and others. Griffin says that she uses the money for “personal expenses” related to her duties as an executive councilor. Those expenses include food, clothes, travel and lodging and the money is held in a joint bank account with Griffin’s son. She maintains that she has no obligation to report the money as income. She does, however, have a clear obligation to report the money under RSA 15-B.

Bearing in mind that a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives takes home a whopping $100 per year in salary (plus a per diem for travel expenses), it is understandable that they should raise money to offset the expenses of their service. What is not understandable is that they should be so cavalier in failing to disclose, fully and accurately, what they got from whom. Even if, as Councilor Griffin claims, the money would in no way influence her decisions, failing to let the rest of us know what is going on looks lousy, if nothing else.

Why is it that someone would make such a donation anyway? True, there might be some admiring soul who feels that a contribution to his local legislator to offset the cost of service is warranted, but most of the contributors are trying to some degree or another, to buy access to the representative. Lobbyists don’t give money to legislators out of the goodness of their hearts. They give money so that they have an ear when a client’s issue comes before a certain committee or to the floor for a vote. In our system of government the donation is not illegal, but the transaction is required to be completely transparent. When a legislator votes on a bill, or advocates in a committee, the relationship that exists with a lobbyist or benefactor of the legislation is significant, important and should be known to everyone. That is the purpose of the law.

Now that the Attorney General’s office is investigating the disclosure issues, and that the House Ethics Committee is looking into related ethical concerns, legislators and others are scrambling to clean up their filings or to introduce legislation designed to “clarify” or better define the requirements. I read the statute in a few minutes. It’s pretty clear (and I didn’t even write it). No amount of explanation, clarification or redefinition will change the fact that the public has a right to know that elected officials, state or county, have received a little extra cash for doing the job they were elected to do. With those “gifts” come expectations, great or small, and it doesn’t’ take much sense to understand why those gifts should not be given in secret. In economics, the rule says “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” In politics, the rule is that all money comes with strings attached. Common sense tells us that citizens have a right to know where the strings lead.

Many legislators will escape prosecution under RSA 15-B:5 because it requires a "knowing" violation for misdemeanor prosecution. They will simply say they "honestly" didn't know of the requirement. Give me a break. They wrote the law. Some may get caught up in filing false or incomplete forms, but for the most part this scandal, too, shall pass.

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