February 07. 2013 5:02AM

John DiStaso's Granite Status: Smith's plans; Kuster's tax stand; Shea-Porter's blue collar returns

New Hampshire Union Leader

GEARING UP. Former candidate for governor Kevin Smith is in Washington this week, and he's not just sight-seeing.

Smith, who won high marks for an issues-oriented campaign despite losing big to Ovide Lamontagne in the 2012 Republican primary, has made no secret that he's looking at a return engagement.

So while in Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast today, Smith is stopping by the Republican Governors Association to discuss the political landscape in 2014.

It's never too early in New Hampshire, with our two-year term for governor. After all, Maggie Hassan has been in office more than a month already.

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WHAT THEY'RE WORTH. The story behind U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster's three years of late property tax payments is perplexing.

Voters would probably understand if Kuster and husband Brad were "regular" working people.

But they're both attorneys. And Kuster lists assets in the $2 million range, including two vacation homes which are rented out, and more than 20 mutual funds.

Why, some ask, couldn't they just cash in a mutual fund, pay up and avoid the embarrassment?

There may be a perfectly reasonable explanation. Apparently, even people worth $2 million can have cash flow problems, the poor things. But for three years?

We may never know why it happened, unless she decides to come out and simply explain.

Now, if Rep. Carol Shea-Porter missed a tax payment, people might understand better.

She lists on her most recently available personal financial statement, covering 2011, no personal income and only two assets - U.S. Savings Bonds and a cash reserve account listed at a maximum of $15,000 each.

She notes that her husband has a salary, the amount of which is not reportable on the form.

Gene Porter as of 2011 still worked for the IRS. (In 2008 he told us he was a program analyst.)

Shea-Porter had been earning a U.S. House salary of about $174,000 until she was voted out in 2010. Now she's back.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, meanwhile, lists a net worth between $1.7 million and $5.2 million. (House members and senators, and candidates, are required on their reports to list assets and liabilities only in broad ranges.)

Shaheen's worth ranked 39th in the Senate in 2011, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Top ranking at the time, John Kerry was worth about $235 million.

Shaheen lists 23 assets with a total value of between $3.5 million and $6 million.

But she also lists nine "liabilities," all mortgages, valued between $2.7 million and $5.5 million.

Shaheen's Senate salary is $174,000 while her husband, Bill, is a well-known attorney.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte lists a 2011 net worth between $242,000 and $1.4 million, which ranked 70th in the Senate.

She lists 13 assets with a combined value between $622,000 and $1.4 million and six liabilities valued between $400,000 and $880,000.

The liabilities are mortgages on her primary residence and a condominium in Nashua that she and her husband, Joe Daley, rent out, as well as four truck and/or equipment loans, presumably for Daley's landscaping/plowing business.

By the way, looking back, former U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta listed his 2011 net worth as somewhere between a "negative" $194,000 and a "plus" $1.47 million. Quite a difference there.

Former Rep. Charlie Bass listed a net worth between $3.5 million and $10 million.

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ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH? Republicans are amazed Bass and his campaign didn't check into Kuster's tax situation BEFORE the election.

"It's Campaign 101," said longtime GOP strategist Mike Dennehy. "When you begin a campaign, you check three things about your opponent: the voting record, which is when they registered and whether they voted in elections; motor vehicle violations, and the tax record.

"To not do those things is campaign negligence," he said.

Had Bass or the Republicans dug up the tax dirt and framed it in some way that could have outraged the average voter, would it have mattered?

Given the state's swing to Democrats and Kuster beating Bass about 50 to 45 percent (with nearly 5 percent for the Libertarian), or by 16,298 votes, probably not. But we'll never know for sure.

Dennehy said if he were advising Kuster, he'd tell her to come forward with some plain talk and "be a lot more apologetic than she has been. She needs to show that she feels the pain that others who can not pay their taxes feel.

"It's hard for ordinary people to understand someone who is a millionaire not paying taxes on time," he said. "It's either an oversight, which is doubtful for three years, or a conscious decision. She needs to come clean on that."

Democrats we spoke with see it as a problem, but far from a long-term or fatal one.

They point out that it's not that Kuster didn't pay her taxes. She did; and in all but one case made payments just a few weeks or a month or so late. (Her July 2012 payment was six months late and one other payment was three months late.)

True, Kuster received negative headlines Wednesday and she can expect mail pieces blasting her on the topic to be sent to voters in 2014.

The Dems' message: Was it sloppy? Yes. Unfortunate. Embarrassing. But not dishonest and certainly not illegal.

Whether it's unethical is in the eye of the beholder. Same goes for whether it's hypocritical given her support for higher income taxes for the wealthy.

While some Democrats believe Kuster would benefit from providing a personal explanation, others say there's no upside to doing so, that there's no explanation that can make it better, and it's best to try to let the story die as soon as possible.

Remember that the Democrats in 2009 and 2010 tried to make hay with Guinta's missed property tax and utility payments in prior years. It didn't hurt him in 2010, when he won. When he lost last year, they were not an issue.

Newly elected state GOP Chair Jennifer Horn has more than $92,000 in tax liens filed by the IRS. She says she is working to pay them down.

That was well-known to Republicans and she was elected to the post anyway.

Both sides agree on one thing: The timing for Kuster was perfect. The Republicans will try to resurrect it in the fall of 2014, but it will be very old news by then, assuming she makes all future payments on time.

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PAID UP. Kuster, by the way, is now paid up on her outstanding $3,800 tax bill for her home in Jackson.

The assistant tax collector there told us the payment arrived Wednesday morning, via over-night courier. Her Hopkinton tax bill was paid up Tuesday.

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KELLY LEANS. It's not a surprise given her questioning at last week's confirmation hearing. U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte says she is "leaning no" on confirming Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense.

Ayotte spokesman Jeff Grappone emailed the Granite Status: "Senator Ayotte is still reviewing this nomination, including written answers Senator Hagel provided this week to several specific questions. Although she hasn't yet reached a final decision, she's leaning no at this point."

Shaheen has announced her support for Hagel.

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HER FIRST OPPONENT? Former Nashua state Sen. Gary Lambert has emerged as the first serious potential Republican challenger for Kuster next year.

He had been quietly making it known he was interested in the 2nd District seat before the tax story emerged.

The state Republican Party quoted Lambert calling on Kuster for an explanation and the release of her state and federal tax records.

"By releasing her 2010 and 2011 tax returns, and pledging to release her 2012 returns once they are prepared, Congresswoman Kuster can begin to regain the trust and confidence of her constituents that has been lost as a result of this embarrassing incident," Lambert said in the prepared statement.

State Democratic Party Chair Raymond Buckley countered that it is "unbelievable that the same party that just elected as chair a person with a lien of over $90,000 for years of back taxes continues to keep unpaid taxes in the news. From Chairwoman Horn's tax lien, to former Congressman Frank Guinta's mystery bank account, I would say that Republicans should worry about getting their own personal financial houses in order before spending any more time thinking about anyone else's."

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MERRILL'S BIG MOVE. After five years heading the strategic consulting group affiliated with the Devine Millimet law firm in Manchester, Jim Merrill has moved to Bernstein Shur to become state director of a new "multi-state strategic consulting subsidiary."

The former senior advisor to Mitt Romney and Ovide Lamontagne will work with David Farmer, who will be based at the firm's Portland office as The Bernstein Shur Group's managing director.

Merrill is a lifelong Republican. Farmer is a former deputy chief of staff to Democratic former Maine Gov. John Baldacci and was the communications director of a successful Maine campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.

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SELLING VOTER LISTS. An independent, non-profit news organization called Pro Publica reported this week that state Democratic parties across the country are considering selling to credit card companies, retailers and other "commercial interests" their research data on voters in their states.

New Hampshire Party Chairman Buckley, who also heads the Association of State Democratic chairs, declined to comment in that story on the potential new source of income for state parties.


We could not reach Buckley for comment Wednesday but we understand that no serious thought is being given to the idea of selling voter data to commercial interests in the Democratic Party here or nationally.


Pro Publica reported that state party leaders formed the National Voter File Co-op in 2011 to sell their information on individual voters' political leanings and interests to "approved groups like the NAACP."

The story reports that in addition to basic voter information such as names, addresses and party affiliation, the Democrats have added valuable information about voters' views and preferences.

According to Pro Publica, there appear to be mixed opinions among Democrats on whether the information should be sold to commercial interests. Some want to be careful to sell to corporations that share "Democratic values."

Other Democrats see it as a potential area for "growth" in income, the story says.

John DiStaso is senior political reporter of the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at jdistaso@unionleader.com. Twitter: @jdistaso.