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Rockingham County attorney faces possible whistleblower lawsuit

Union Leader Correspondent

March 11. 2015 11:52PM

Rockingham County Attorney Patricia Conway (left) is facing a potential whistleblower's lawsuit from her former co-worker, Jerome Blanchard. (JAMES A. KIMBLE/FILE PHOTOS)

BRENTWOOD — Rockingham County Attorney Patricia Conway is facing a potential whistleblower’s lawsuit for her decision to fire a key witness in a state misconduct investigation just hours after she was sworn into office.

County commissioners acknowledged on Wednesday that they received an offer to settle the matter financially instead of defending themselves from a lawsuit regarding the Nov. 7 firing of former assistant county attorney Jerome Blanchard.

Blanchard tipped off state and federal investigators in late 2013 about a legally questionable forfeiture account and ethical issues allegedly involving former Rockingham County attorney James Reams.

Reams denied any wrongdoing.

He left his elected post last June after eight terms in office.

Conway was drawn into the investigation when Blanchard told investigators that her husband, Eric Lamb, had been improperly “cleared” from a list of former and current police officers with potential credibility issues.

Conway denied in an interview Wednesday that her decision to terminate Blanchard was payback.

“The termination of Attorney Blanchard was in no way retaliatory,” Conway said. “It was done in the best interest of the county. I stand by my decision.”

Conway has denied having any knowledge about Blanchard being the person who told investigators about her husband’s incorrect designation on the state-mandated list.

Blanchard’s lawyer, Sean O’Connell, offered a rough outline of what a lawsuit against Rockingham County — and Conway individually — would look like if it went to trial.

“Ms. Conway was very close — both professionally and personally — with Mr. Reams,” O’Connell wrote in a March 6 letter to commissioners. “It is more than fair to characterize Mr. Reams as a mentor to Ms. Conway and a champion of hers within the County Attorney’s office.”

The letter, obtained by the New Hampshire Union Leader, said the lawsuit would be brought under the state’s Whistleblowers’ Protection Act if the case was not settled out of court.

Conway acknowledged in a letter written to commissioners on Monday that Blanchard is seeking legal action against her personally for alleged wrongful termination.

She asked commissioners to defend her in court, suggesting that her actions were conducted in her official capacity and protected under state law.

Conway told commissioners that she would not be able to meet with them on Wednesday because she was in trial.

Conway, a Republican from Salem, campaigned on restoring credibility to a county attorney’s office racked by a legal battle that Reams waged against the state attorney general’s office.

The lawsuit returned Reams to office, but brought to light allegations of sexual harassment, ethical violations and mismanagement of a forfeiture account.

Rockingham County Commission Chairman Tom Tombarello said that Conway has never fully explained why she fired Blanchard.

“We asked her a couple of times,” Tombarello said. “She said she couldn’t because it was a potential legal matter. She told us it was her decision.”

Conway said those conversations involved personnel matters that came up during public meetings, and she was unsure whether she could discuss such matters with commissioners.

Tombarello said he hoped that Conway’s reasons for terminating Blanchard were legitimate. Commissioners will have to decide whether to provide Conway legal representation given that she would be sued individually, and not in her official capacity.

“If he goes after her personally, Tombarello said. “I am not sure if we are interested or not interested in providing her legal assistance.”

Commission Vice Chairman Kevin Coyle, a harsh critic of Conway’s decision, said he would not support any request for the county to protect Conway in court.

“I believe her firing of Jerome was retaliation,” Coyle said. “This is something she did and she is going to have to suffer the consequences.”

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