PETERBOROUGH — The Executive Council has refused to appoint former Manchester Police Chief David Mara to the Attorney General’s office, with some councilors citing concerns that the state is circumventing the democratic process by effectively replacing elected Hillsborough County Attorney Michael Conlon.
Mara’s nomination was part of Attorney General Gordon MacDonald’s plan to assume oversight of the County Attorney’s office in response to concerns about Conlon’s supervisory ability.
“I am very concerned with doing this process by press conference,” said Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord. “This process is not respecting the will of the majority of voters.”
The council met Wednesday at Peterborough Town House.
“How many times do I have to have for an answer (from Conlon), ‘I didn’t know about that,’” Young told the council. “We have given him every support that we can. I don’t know what else we can do. This is business, not personal, and our business is to protect the lives of the people of Hillsborough County. This is not a philosophical difference, this is a competency issue.”
Volinsky and Deb Pignatelli, D-Nashua, voted against Mara’s appointment, while Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, and Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, both voted in favor of the appointment. Michael Cryans, D-Hanover, abstained from the vote, effectively killing the nomination.
Volinsky said it’s hard to know what to believe when it comes to what MacDonald and Young have been saying about Conlon’s tenure.
“This is a multi-year problem that predates Mr. Conlon,” Volinsky said. The Attorney General’s office “has said all kinds of things in public that others disagree with.”
Pignatelli said she would support Mara’s appointment so long as it was understood that the appointment was temporary, and Mara would be in the office along with other staffers from the Attorney General’s office primarily to teach Conlon how to do the job.
She said the Hillsborough County Attorney’s office has long been in disarray, going back to former County Attorney Dennis Hogan. “It was an extremely dysfunctional office when (Conlon) took over,” Pignatelli said.
MacDonald bristled at Volinsky’s and Pignatelli’s insinuation that the appointment of Mara was a political maneuver to overturn the results of the last election. Conlon is a Democrat and Hogan is a Republican.
MacDonald asserted it is about public safety, not politics.
“We are there, we are going to exercise our criminal law enforcement functions,” MacDonald said. “I am asking this council for the resources to do that.”
The original plan had been for Mara to assume control of day-to-day law enforcement duties while Conlon would remain responsible for administrative tasks.
After Wednesday’s vote, Conlon said his office welcomed the resources and guidance of the Attorney General’s office, but comments about his job performance were unwarranted.
“Despite the public inaccuracies presented by the Attorney General’s office about me and my leadership, and their repeated behavior of disparaging me and my office in the media, I will continue to work with them to get the job done,” Conlon wrote in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon.
“I look forward to continuing as the elected Hillsborough County Attorney and working hard every day to making further improvements to this office. The important work that the team does and the critical role of this office serving the residents of Hillsborough County and public safety should be bringing us together at the table to solve these issues.”
Had he been appointed, Mara would have received a salary of $95,000.
Mara’s nomination was one of two MacDonald proposed for the County Attorney’s office. The council unanimously approved the hiring of David Rotman, an experienced prosecutor, as assistant attorney general with a salary of $96,000.
Gov. Chris Sununu called the vote to reject Mara’s appointment political and said the council should instead be focused on public safety.
“The facts are very clear,” Sununu said. “The Hillsborough County Attorney’s office is in massive crisis and their incompetence has put people at risk, which is exactly why the AG has stepped up.”
Sununu conceded the problems with the Hillsborough office dated back to Hogan, which he said is why the attorney general was working with that office more than a year ago.
Young told the council that the Attorney General’s office did not want to appear to influence the election in November when it reviewed Hogan’s leadership and found it wanting.
After Conlon was elected, the Attorney General’s office continued to have concerns, and Young said senior attorneys in Concord wanted MacDonald to take action back in March. MacDonald instead counseled staff to work with Conlon.
The breaking point in Conlon’s tenure appears to be a plea agreement approved by his office, one he reportedly told Young he never saw, concerning 20-month-old Tayden Garvey of Manchester, who died after ingesting cocaine last year.
Conlon’s office approved a plea deal for his father, Joshua Garvey, with a minimum sentence for negligent homicide of five years behind bars, followed by a mandatory two years in a residential drug treatment program. This relatively short sentence angered Manchester police officials, who began publicly criticizing Conlon.
The major sore point for Jane Young is the death of Jennifer Burpee of Manchester. Damien Seace, also of Manchester, was charged in connection with her killing earlier this year. According to Young, Conlon’s office had an indictment against Seace on accusations he choked Burpee in 2018, but all the charges — including a criminal threatening-terrorize charge, in which Seace is alleged to have told Burpee he was going to murder and bury her — were dropped in February.
Burpee was killed in mid-July and Seace was arrested and charged with murder.
“You have that poor woman murdered after this individual was essentially nol prossed without explanation,” Sununu said. “There’s no sense of the seriousness of their inaction on some of these issues.”
Young said the Burpee case keeps her up at night and it should keep Conlon up at night, too. Conlon, she told the council, lacks a basic understanding of his job, despite the efforts of the Attorney General’s office to help him.
“I cannot get him to understand basic legal concepts,” she said.
Mara will continue to serve New Hampshire as the state’s drug czar, Sununu said. Young said she will continue to be in the Hillsborough County Attorney’s office, since Mara was not hired.
“I’ll keep doing two jobs,” Young said.