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Secretary of State Gardner hires veteran NH political operative as in-house lawyer

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 05. 2017 11:39PM
Orville "Bud" Fitch 

CONCORD — After serving more than 40 years without one, Secretary of State Bill Gardner finally has his own office lawyer.

And Gardner didn’t do a nationwide search to fill the newly created post because he had only one person in mind for the assignment.

He’s Orville “Bud” Fitch, who was legal counsel to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, until New Hampshire voters replaced her with Democrat Maggie Hassan last November.

Gardner got to know Fitch in his earlier state government life as a 15-year employee with the Attorney General’s Office, where he rose to the rank of deputy under Ayotte when she was AG.

“When he first got to the AG’s office in 2000, working with my office was what (then AG) Phil McLaughlin asked him to do and that’s how I came to know him,” Gardner said.

“He knows the town and city clerks well, has done a lot of training sessions over the years with them. He’s just really well-liked and respected; we’re fortunate that he was available to us.”

Former Democratic Gov. John Lynch tapped Fitch to run for nearly two years the state Office of Economic Stimulus, dispensing the increased federal grant money that was awarded to states after the last recession.

When Gardner reached out to him, Fitch was working as legal counsel with the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

“It’s an incredibly important part of government; people need to feel confident that their elections are open and fair to everyone,” Fitch said. “This has been something important to me and I am excited by the opportunity.”

Gardner named Fitch as an assistant secretary of state, which due to his long service in state government, pays him at the top of the salary scale for that job, roughly $80,000 a year.

Nearly 900 cases

The New Hampshire Legislature brought about the hire through a new law that requires Gardner’s office to further investigate those voting in New Hampshire without a valid address.

“A lot of what has been put in the laws over the years the AG’s office has not had the funding to do it,” Gardner said.

A new report on the 2016 election in late September concluded that nearly 1,100 people who cast ballots here in New Hampshire were either under investigation for voting in more than one place or signed affidavits with addresses that may not have been valid,

These were voters who either did not have an ID card with them while casting their ballot or signed an affidavit claiming an address they were giving was accurate.

In these cases, existing law had called for Gardner’s office to follow up with a postcard sent to that address.

In nearly 900 cases, these postcards were returned to the state as undeliverable.

“Until now the Attorney General’s Office has not had the resources to follow up on these postcard returns,” Gardner said. “Now we do.”

Nashua Republican State Rep. Bill Ohm authored the 2017 legislation (HB 522) that states Gardner’s office may interview those at that given address, and then must forward to state prosecutors the names of all those whose eligibility could not be confirmed.

“The Legislature has made clear they want to have more certainty about whether those folks are legitimate voters,” Fitch said. “This only makes sense because democracy can only work if people believe all the proper votes are counted.”

$500,000 for enforcement

The two-year state budget Gov. Chris Sununu signed last June contains about $500,000 for election law enforcement by Gardner’s office and that of Attorney General Gordon MacDonald.

Some of the money will implement New Hampshire’s participation in a voter cross-check program with 28 other states to identify voters who tried to cast a ballot in more than one state.

Both Gardner and Fitch agree the job will call for other election-related legal duties.

“The last three or four years there have been so many lawsuits this office has had to deal with and Right-to-Know law requests, dozens of them,” Gardner said.

Fitch said he’ll be splitting his time between Gardner’s office in the State House and the State Archives Building, where all election records are stored after four years. Fitch also intends to serve as a clearinghouse for legal questions that town and city clerks have about elections.

“They are the unsung heroes of the election process and part of what makes New Hampshire fairly uncommon around the rest of the country,” Fitch said. “In my experience, I’ve found they really work very hard to get it right and the voters appreciate that as well.”

The move ends New Hampshire’s distinction as one of the only states in the country without a lawyer who works for the state’s top election official.

“For me, Bud was the logical choice. I think he’s perfectly suited for this,” Gardner added.