Hundreds of top state officials fail to file financial disclosure, now Franklin lawmaker wants a $5K fineBy DAVE SOLOMON
New Hampshire Union Leader
October 11. 2018 9:59AM
CONCORD — A state law requiring hundreds of upper-level state employees and commission appointees to file financial disclosures appears to be routinely ignored, with little or no consequences for those who fail to file.
State Rep. Werner Horn, R-Franklin, has filed a request with House attorneys asking them to draft a bill that would require more robust enforcement of the law (Chapter 15-A Financial Disclosures) that has been in effect since 2006.
“I plan to put legislation in that requires the attorney general to put an eyeball on this list and chase down whoever is not in compliance,” said Horn, “and it adds a $5,000 civil penalty.”
Gov. Chris Sununu says he will also be pushing for legislative action on the issue.
“The financial disclosure requirement contained in RSA 15-A plays a critical role in keeping state government accountable,” said Sununu’s legal counsel, John Formella. “The governor will be asking the Legislature in the next session to address long-standing compliance issues.”
State Sen. Harold French, R-Franklin, says he raised the issue with the attorney general two weeks ago and is still waiting for an answer.
“It concerns me because I sit on the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, which approves the rules put out by these agencies,” says French. “The law is clear that you have to fill these out for transparency, and if you don’t, you can’t act on our behalf. So my question to the AG was how can I approve rules written by agency members who have no legal standing to present them.”
Answer is coming
Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said the Department of Justice is in the process of preparing a response to French, which will be made public at the beginning of next week.
“The statute doesn’t specifically provide for any state agency to audit the filings,” said Edwards. “It has an enforcement mechanism because someone can be charged with a misdemeanor if they knowingly fail to file, but it was never assigned to a state agency to ensure that everyone files on time.”
The list of required “15-A filers,” as they are called, is maintained by the Secretary of State office and posted on the SOS website under “Administration.” It is supposed to include everyone on a board, commission or agency with the power to sign contracts, accept bids or otherwise do business on behalf of the state.
The list currently posted consists of 46 pages with about 40 names on each page, for a total of about 1,840 names. Everyone who has filed has an “x” by their name. There are about 600 listings with no “x.”
The list also contains some names of individuals who no longer work for the agency under which they are listed, or no longer work in state government.
But there’s no doubt that hundreds of people who should file have not done so.
“The purpose of this chapter is to ensure that the performance of official duties does not give rise to a conflict of interest, by requiring the following persons to file a statement of financial interests with the secretary of state,” according to the law, which embraces everything from the Board of Acupuncture Licensing to the Wetlands Council.
A big department, like Health and Human Services, has 30 people on the list, while Lakes Region Community College has only two.
A list of those required to file can be viewed below (x by name means disclosure filed, no x means no disclosure):
Deadline in January
Everyone required to file a disclosure form must do so no later than the third Friday in January or within 14 days of assuming office.
The law states, “No person required to file a statement of financial interest pursuant to RSA 15-A shall be eligible to serve in his or her appointed capacity prior to filing a statement in accordance with this section.”
“I have showed this to attorneys and every one of them comes to the same conclusion: Anyone who is required to file a 15-A but doesn’t by the third Friday in January of every year has no statutory authority to act until they file. If that’s true, the consequences could be chilling,” says Paul Morrissette of Franklin, who brought the issue to the attention of Horn and French.
Morrisette, a businessman, developer and auctioneer, was among the unsuccessful bidders when the state issued licenses to open medical marijuana dispensaries. He’s suing the Department of Health and Human Services, claiming the agency did not follow competitive bidding statutes or its own bidding guidelines in denying him one of the licenses to open an alternative treatment center.
As part of his lawsuit, he claims the licenses for those centers were issued illegally because not all state officials involved in the decision had filed the required financial disclosures, including DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers.
Meyers disputes that allegation. “Before being appointed commissioner in January 2016, I filed a financial disclosure as director of intergovernmental affairs,” he says. “After being appointed commissioner in January 2016, I re-filed my financial disclosure and timely filed again in 2017.”
The commissioner of the state’s largest agency acknowledges that “through inadvertence” he did not file a 2018 disclosure until September.
Meyers maintains that the filing of his financial disclosure form in January 2016 fulfilled the eligibility requirement for him to act in his capacity as commissioner.
“The Attorney General’s office has confirmed to me that view of the law and of my compliance with that requirement,” he said. “I have taken steps to insure that all staff designated to file complete that filing.”