CONCORD — The chair of the House committee investigating the Liquor Commission and the liquor commissioners butted heads Tuesday over the committee's access to information and commission employees.
Rep. Lynn Ober, R-Hudson, accused the commissioners of prohibiting employees from talking to the committee, its members or its lawyer without a member of the Attorney General's Office present, and of illegally withholding information sought in a right-to-know request.
But the commissioners said they have not prohibited any of their employees from talking to anyone.
“They have our permission to talk to whoever they see fit,” said Commissioner Michael Milligan. “We have no desire to chill anything at all.”
The committee Tuesday focused on two directors' positions advertised last week.
Ober noted Enforcement Division Chief Eddie Edwards testified before the committee last week, and two days later an advertisement was in the paper for someone to fill his position. “That looks very much to me like intimidation,” Ober said.
Ober called the job postings an attempt to keep other employees from testifying before the committee.
She and House Speaker William O'Brien, who appointed the committee and attended Tuesday's hearing, released scathing statements Monday about the job postings, which appeared Friday and were first reported Saturday by the New Hampshire Union Leader.
But Liquor Commission Chairman Joseph Mollica said the commission is doing what lawmakers approved in 2009, when it created three high-level directors' positions.
The 2009 law gave the Liquor Commission greater autonomy than other state agencies, reduced legislative and Executive Council oversight and changed the classification of the three positions from classified to unclassified.
Classified employees are protected under the state employee, collectively bargained contract and a procedure is in place for disciplining state workers — including firing.
Unclassified employees serve at the pleasure of their commissioners or the Governor and Executive Council and cannot cash out sick or vacation leave when they leave state government, as classified employees can do.
Milligan said the intent was always to have the current employees move into the new director positions.
“We were trying to do the right thing for them,” he said.
Mollica also said the process took as long as it did due to the process to set unclassified salaries.
Since the 2009 law, there have also been discussions about benefits, retirement and responsibilities for the three positions. Mollica said the commission tried to work with the employees to retain their sick and vacation leave, but were told that would not be possible under current personnel rules.
Milligan said Edwards and Craig Bulkley declined to take the division directors' positions before the positions were advertised. Edwards disputed that, but Bulkley did not, saying he would have had to take a pay cut to take the post.
Edwards said he expected the discussions to continue as they had for the past two years, without the position being advertised.
“They did not want me in the job as I began complaining about these things back in January,” Edwards said.
The commissioners said they intend to retain Edwards as chief of enforcement when someone else fills the director's position; the same would apply to Bulkley when the director of administration position is filled.
The commissioners said the three classified positions were not abolished when lawmakers created the three new directors' positions, but several committee members disagreed with that, saying the intent was to eliminate the other three positions.
Mollica said with an organization that does $600 million in business annually, there is clearly a need for additional staff. He said there currently are not enough employees to maximize profits and provide additional money to state coffers.
Ober told the commission they owed Edwards something because anyone who reads the newspaper and sees their job advertised believes “he is going to be fired. You need to do something ... He did come in here and whistleblow.”
The committee meets today to continue its investigation.