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Eddie Edwards details past racial bias allegations at state liquor agency

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 01. 2018 10:12PM
Eddie Edwards, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives for New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District, recently offered new details on a pattern of discrimination that led to his departure from the State Liquor Commission in 2013. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Republican congressional candidate Eddie Edwards of Dover said superiors at the State Liquor Commission over nearly an eight-year period used his race to try and control him, a pattern of discrimination that led to his departure in 2013 and a $160,000 settlement.

A former liquor law enforcement and local police chief, Edwards seeks to become the first African-American to win a major state or federal office in New Hampshire.

Edwards offered new details about the controversy Friday following a Right to Know Law inquiry made by the New Hampshire Union Leader and other media outlets.

"One comment said to me was, 'We aren't used to black people having power in this state,'" Edwards said during an interview.

"That was something that was shocking to me, the idea someone would say something that crazy to me."

On another occasion, one of Edwards' superiors told another senior staffer that Edwards was "behaving like one of those Southern blacks," Edwards recalled.

And another commission authority asked Edwards to "smile so we can see you," he added.

While Edwards said the "n" word was never used, he remarked, "There were a multitude of different types of statements."

This became a repeated pattern of behavior and Edwards said he asked for but never received an apology for it. After years of trying to work it out internally, Edwards filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission in 2009.

"Over time it became more intense, and that's not to say a lot of these people who were involved were necessarily racist," Edwards said.

"They used my race as a way to try to control me. It is hard for me to tell what was in their heart or mind."

A confidentiality agreement that's part of the settlement prevents Edwards from identifying who engaged in the objectionable conduct, whether it was any on the three-person commission, department heads or others working at the state-run liquor monopoly agency.

That's the part my attorney wants me to not get into, identifying people," Edwards said.

Edwards is locked in a bitter GOP primary and accused his rival, State Sen. Andy Sanborn, of misrepresenting the settlement.

Edwards has charged Sanborn engaged in predatory behavior against staff at the State House and doesn't understand what victims undergo.

"Senator Sanborn has decided to use this as a detriment to me when I was simply standing up for what I thought was right, fighting back against discrimination," Edwards said. "He knows something about people who are victims of the state, victims of his own predatory behavior."

I think this may be a reflection of why he treats people and why he struggles with what victimization looks like."

In a statement, Sanborn said Edwards is still hiding details about the controversy.

"I and every other employer in New Hampshire has zero tolerance for racism, both in and outside of the workplace. Any allegation of racism should be investigated and resolved immediately. Unfortunately, the public may never be able to fully understand these deeply disturbing allegations because instead of transparent adjudication, Mr. Edwards chose to enter into a secret agreement where he exchanged his silence for a large cash sum," Sanborn said.

"However, there is clearly more to this story than we currently know. The settlement agreement required Mr. Edwards to resign and prohibited him from ever working at the Commission again. This clearly illustrates that we do not have all the facts because employer retaliation is illegal under New Hampshire law."

Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald's office declined further comment on the matter.

E.J. Powers, a liquor commission spokesman, said this was about a different era at the agency.

"Mr. Edwards' complaint was filed in 2009, prior to the current New Hampshire Liquor Commission administration. We cannot speak to the allegations because there was completely different leadership at that time," Powers said.

As part of the agreement, neither the state nor Edwards admitted liability or wrongdoing.

Edwards was hired by the liquor commission in 1995 and promoted to law enforcement chief in 2005.

The first confrontation occurred in early 2006 when Edwards said he questioned the changing of pay scales that ensured the salary paid to him was less than what was paid to his predecessor.

"In a work environment where people are trying to control you and use your race to achieve that I think you have to push back against it. It was quite surprising at the time and it turned out ugly," Edwards said. "I simply wanted an apology at the time and I was told that is not how these things work."

Edwards said he tried to resolve his grievance "at the lowest levels" but got nowhere, which was why he filed the anti-discrimination complaint.

"I notified the commission in 2012 that I would be retiring in 2013 and they reached out to my attorney and said they would like to settle this prior to my retiring," Edwards said.

According to Edwards, much of the settlement represented "back pay," additional salary Edwards claimed to be entitled to receive before pay scales were changed.

The agreement spelled out that within 20 days of Edwards dropping all charges against the agency that he would get $35,000 as a regular payroll payment, $95,000 in a lump-sum reportable to the IRS and $35,000 paid to Edwards' lawyers, Manchester-based McLane Middleton.

During his tenure, Edwards clashed with his superiors.

A decade ago, State Rep. Dan Eaton asked Liquor Commission Chairman Mark Bodi to have Edwards remove video surveillance equipment from a friend's bar. Edwards said he had fought the order and felt pressured by Bodi in the incident. Bodi said it was Eaton who had pressured him.

In response, Gov. John Lynch had sought Bodi's removal. After an investigation and hearing, the Executive Council stripped Bodi of his chairmanship in 2011 and Bodi resigned from the agency a year later.

Sanborn referred to the episode in his statement.

"Of note, this complaint happened at a time where Edwards was being investigated for his handling of a case involving the removal of company assets without a warrant in Keene," Sanborn said.

Edwards said for years he did not want to leave the agency despite the alleged discrimination.

"For me, based on my life experiences, I know that a lot of people will use whatever is at their disposal to harm you and make you surrender," Edwards said.

"You just don't quit; you don't walk away, you don't give up, you try to change the environment."

Edwards said the ugly episode harmed him physically.

"It took a toll on me. My blood pressure went up really high. My doctor put me on blood pressure medication for a period of time. He told me if you don't take this, you could get a stroke," Edwards said.

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