Legislative Ethics Committee to decide today on Bragdon conflict-of-interest probe
CONCORD — The Legislative Ethics Committee is scheduled to decide today whether it should proceed with a formal investigation of a possible conflict of interest on the part of former state Senate President Peter Bragdon.
Bragdon, who resigned his Senate presidency but still serves as the state senator from Milford, was hired last year as executive director of the Local Government Center. He now heads HealthTrust, which was the LGC’s largest subsidiary and administers health insurance policies for tens of thousands of public employees across the state. LGC was split up last year during a corporate reorganization.
The ethics committee voted, 6-0, last fall to open a preliminary investigation after Rep. Rick Watrous, D-Concord, filed a complaint alleging Bragdon violated both legislative ethics guidelines and state law in taking the $180,000-a-year position with LGC. At the heart of the issue is whether Bragdon has a role in deciding how much the LGC spends on lobbying state lawmakers to pass legislation beneficial to HealthTrust.
Bragdon’s lawyer, Russell Hilliard, on Wednesday told the committee that his client has not been and will not be involved in lobbying. A letter Hilliard sent Wednesday to the Secretary of State’s Office said Bragdon recuses himself from votes related to HealthTrust or to anything related to a state law, RSA 5-b, that grants regulatory authority over public risk pools.
Shortly after being hired last year, Bragdon sent an email to fellow LGC executive Wendy Parker. The Sept. 12 email, obtained recently by the Union Leader, includes a reference to a “‘legislative coverage issues’ item in the budgets” and includes Bragdon directing Parker to retain the funds in the budget.
Asked about the email, Bragdon told a reporter last week that he wanted to find out what “legislative coverage issues” meant.
“I wouldn’t characterize it (the term) as reserving money for lobbying,” Bragdon said. “It seemed unclear to me what was actually covered in that budget item. But given the lateness in the (budget-writing) process, I let it go.”
In a subsequent conversation with a reporter, he clarified his answer to say “legislative coverage issues” refers to monitoring federal or state legislative activities that could directly affect insurance coverage. He said HealthTrust has a separate budget line to pay for lobbying services, called “Legislative 5-B,” a reference to the state law covering public risk pools. He said he did not include that line in the budget he submitted to the HealthTrust board.
“The record shows that I did NOT reserve money in the budget for hiring a lobbyist,’’ he said.
According to the state’s website, the Legislative Ethics Committee is a statutory committee that administers and enforces the New Hampshire General Court’s ethical standards. Established in 1991, it develops ethical standards for members, officers and employees of the New Hampshire General Court, provides advisory opinions and interpretive rulings regarding legislative standards of conduct, and resolves complaints of improper conduct involving legislators, legislative officers and legislative employees.
Its members are:
• Martin L. Gross, chairman, a public member appointed by the Senate president and designated chairman by the speaker of the House and Senate president.
• Rep. Janet G. Wall, vice chairman, House member appointed by the speaker of the House and designated vice chairman by the speaker of the House and Senate president.
• Rep. Jordan G. Ulery, House member appointed by the House minority leader.
• Sen. Jim Rausch, Senate member appointed by the Senate president.
• Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, Senate member appointed by the Senate minority leader.
• Wilfred L. Sanders Jr., public member appointed by the speaker of the House.
• David A. Welch, public member appointed jointly by the speaker of the House, the House minority leader, the Senate president and the Senate minority leader.
• Richard M. Lambert is the executive administrator.