EPSOM — Longtime town Police Chief Wayne Preve is under criminal investigation by the Sullivan County Attorney’s office for improperly accessing a police database to find damaging information about a local attorney.

The town’s Board of Selectmen suspended Preve for one week without pay in January, but did not disclose the reason for the discipline. But a recent decision by the Department of Labor — to which Preve appealed his suspension — shows that his misconduct stemmed from a running disagreement with Tony Soltani. The former state representative has been a frequent critic of the town’s police department.

Neither Preve nor Soltani responded to requests for comment.

On Oct. 16, 2017, “an issue arose” in court between Soltani and Epsom police Lt. Brian Michael, according to the Department of Labor decision. In a Facebook post from earlier this year, Soltani wrote that he called Michael a sex offender. Michael is not a registered sex offender.

In response to the comment, Michael and Preve decided to file a complaint of professional misconduct against Soltani.

“(Preve) decided to report (Soltani) to the proper authorities,” the Department of Labor hearing officer wrote in her Oct. 2 decision. “Preve) then collected all the data on (Soltani) in the police department’s database. He did a computer search for (Soltani) which included all reports in which he or his family was listed, regardless of whether they were victims, witnesses, or an accused.”

Preve then wrote a letter and sent it, along with police records regarding Soltani and his family, to the Judicial Conduct Committee and to Soltani.

The Judicial Conduct Committee, which does not handle complaints against attorneys, sent Preve’s letter back to the town, at which point the Board of Selectmen told the chief not to refile his complaint.

The board hired a consultant from Municipal Resources Inc. to investigate Preve’s actions. MRI’s report stated that the chief appeared to have violated state privacy laws, according to the DOL decision.

The town contacted the Attorney General’s office, which referred the case to the Sullivan County Attorney for investigation due to the potential conflict of interest had the Merrimack County Attorney handled the case.

Preve admitted to improperly using the police database and said “he would not have handed out the information he provided to the JCC to other members of the public,” according to the Department of Labor decision.

Preve had appealed his suspension, arguing that it was whistleblower retaliation. But the Department of Labor dismissed his appeal last month, ruling that the town was within its rights to discipline him.

“I think the chief acknowledged in the hearing that mistakes were made, and although he didn’t agree with the town’s response, I think our response was prudent, measured, and serious,” said Hugh Curley III, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “We have always maintained a respect for the chief and we’ve continued to work with him and expect to be able to put this behind us.”

Soltani, who represented Epsom in the House from 2010 to 2012, has a long and rocky history with the town’s police department.

He served as a part-time Epsom police officer from 1987 to 1992, before becoming an attorney, then went on to hold several positions in town government; he currently serves on the budget committee.

On April 6, 2012, Epsom police arrested Soltani on a felony charge of reckless conduct after he interfered in a police chase, according to a public censure order from the state Supreme Court’s Professional Conduct Committee, which handles attorney discipline.

After observing an Epsom police officer pull over a Mercedes, Soltani, who was a private citizen at the time, also pulled over in what he described as an attempt to assist the officer.

When the driver of the Mercedes fled, Soltani pulled back onto the highway and pursued him, at one point putting his car between the Mercedes and the pursuing police officer’s cruiser.

Later in the chase, Soltani was driving in a lane of oncoming traffic, forcing other drivers to take evasive action, in order to stay next to the Mercedes, according to the censure order.

Soltani was convicted of lesser misdemeanors as a result of the incident.

Several months later, Epsom police arrested his teenage son for shoplifting.

In recent months, Soltani has written at length on his personal Facebook page about the Epsom Police Department.

“In response to my calling Brian a sex offender, they decided to access private information about me, my children, my former spouse, and my dogs,” he wrote on Jan. 7. “They also published this information. This is an independent crime. They did this in retaliation for my exercise of my First Amendment constitutional rights.”

tfeathers@unionleader.com