Time ran out on Eaton ethics probe
CONCORD - A 2010 Legislative Ethics Committee probe of prominent state Rep. Dan Eaton's actions in a State Liquor Commission scandal was left incomplete when Eaton left office. Eaton is now back, but a statute-of-limitations type committee rule may mean he will not face further inquiry.
Some Republicans are crying foul. They want the Democratic House leadership to ask for a new probe. Eaton was accused of bullying former state liquor chairman Mark Bodi, a fellow Democrat, into interfering in an investigation involving a tavern run by an Eaton constituent. Eaton has denied the charge.
"The voters have spoken very clearly that they want this partisan gamesmanship to stop and they want us concentrating on working on the problems of the state," Eaton told the Sunday News.
He said an Attorney General's inquiry "completely exonerated me" of Bodi's charge that Eaton bullied him into ordering the return of videotape equipment from the tavern, which had been accused of over-serving a patron.
Eaton at the time was a member of the House Democratic leadership and its powerful Finance Committee.
The allegations led to formal removal proceedings against Liquor Chairman Bodi, initiated by Attorney General Michael Delaney, and supported by Gov. John Lynch. Bodi was not removed but agreed to step down as chair. He later resigned and is now a private marketing consultant.
Delaney presented the Bodi case to a grand jury but no criminal charge resulted. Bodi testified that he was the target of a "jihad" by Eaton. He testified that Eaton pressured him into ordering liquor commission enforcement chief Eddie Edwards and his officers into returning video equipment from the tavern.
Eaton came to the tavern at the owner's request while enforcement officials were on the scene, but he has repeatedly denied pressuring Bodi to do anything. The Attorney General, noted Eaton, "said that while (Bodi) said extreme pressure was exerted upon him, anyone else would just have called it constituent service, and that's an exact quote."
The ethics probe, however, while inspired by the criminal investigation, was separate. It was filed on behalf of the state Republican Party in March of 2010.
Ethics Committee chairman Martin Gross, a Concord attorney, said the panel could not act on the complaint until it received the AG's reports, which were not available until the Bodi removal case ended.
By the time Ethics got the documents, Eaton had lost his reelection bid and had only a few weeks remaining in his term, which ended Dec. 1, 2010. After that, Ethics had no jurisdiction.
Gross did say in mid-November 2010, however, that the AG's reports "indicate that the allegations of the (Republican) complaint may have merit and warrant further investigation."
The most recent ethics committee went out of existence several weeks ago. A new panel for the new Legislature has not yet been named. It is possible that Gross, who is not a legislator, will be back as chairman.
Eaton, meanwhile, is back in the House.
Rep. Terie Norelli, who was House Speaker in 2010 and is now, did not return Eaton to her official leadership, but she did name him to key posts of chairman of the House Finance Committee Division II and as a member of House Rules.
Ryan Williams, who filed the original Republican complaint, and is no longer with the state GOP, said Norelli "should seek a change in the ethics committee rules to allow a full investigation to be sure the actions of a member of her leadership are properly addressed.'
"It's an outrage that Speaker Norelli would appoint someone with a history of ethically questionable behavior to a key position," Williams said.
Eaton said the ethics committee in 2010 "violated their own rules that someone making a complaint must have direct personal knowledge (of the alleged act). They acknowledged they were using a complaint from the Republican State Committee that was based on newspaper clippings."
Eaton said that with Norelli and Republican leader Gene Chandler in leadership positions, "We are really truly trying to start out with a honeymoon and are trying to work cooperatively, and all the members of (Chandler's) leadership team I have spoken to have said the same thing."
Chandler said Friday he would "take no position" on a new probe, but other Republicans called for a rule change to allow one.
Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, said, "Perhaps it is something that should be revisited to find out the rationale for that time limitation and whether it's valid and should continue or be changed."
Speaking as an individual legislator and not in his role as deputy Republican leader, Hess said, "The ethics committee closed the review two years ago while they still had jurisdiction" over Eaton, and, "If they are now saying too much time has passed because of their unilateral decision, that seems to be a rather circular consequence."
Norelli did not respond to a Sunday News inquiry; but House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, said the Attorney General "looked at the issue and there is no criminality involved.''
"As far as the other aspects, I can't really answer because I'm not sure," Shurtleff said.
"It's an interesting point regarding whether what happened before it was nullified," he said. "There are a lot of questions but, unfortunately, I don't have any answers."
Bodi believes that Eaton's conduct should be reviewed by the ethics committee, saying, "The passage of time in no way erases the need to adhere to the highest standards of ethics."
Former Attorney General Phillip McLaughlin, Bodi's attorney during the removal proceedings, said, "I thought evidence regarding Mr. Eaton's conduct was quite clear."
McLaughlin said that while he is unfamiliar with ethics committee rules, "the way the Legislature chooses to conduct itself may be far more a function of its sense of institutional integrity than it is of any particular rule. It's choices will reflect its view of institutional integrity."