Gov. Chris Sununu’s office has refused to produce records relating to payments he and members of his staff received from a corporation- and lobbyist-funded nonprofit responsible for organizing his inaugural parties in 2017.
In a letter to the New Hampshire Democratic Party, which last month requested receipts, travel vouchers and other documentation of the payments under the state’s Right-to-Know law, the governor’s office said it was withholding the records because they contained sensitive security information and were protected by executive privilege.
Sununu’s office has not yet responded to a similar records request submitted by the New Hampshire Sunday News, which in November reported that The Sununu Inaugural Fund Inc., directed by Sununu’s sister and a top adviser, Paul Collins, paid out more than $165,000 to Sununu, members of his family and close advisers.
The governor’s legal counsel, John Formella, said in an interview that the majority of the documents the NHDP requested were in the possession of The Sununu Inaugural Fund Inc., which as a nonprofit is not subject to public records laws.
“Any documents that relate to reimbursements from the inaugural fund in this office are all related to official travel and the governor’s schedule of events,” he said, adding that “the documents in question would reflect enough of a pattern that they would give one an idea of what the governor would be likely to do in the future.”
Sununu and Collins have so far declined to provide explanations for the money they received from the inaugural committee beyond saying the payments were legal and furthered the official functions of the governor’s office. Sununu himself received nearly $40,000, including several checks for more than $5,000 for “travel,” and Collins received nearly $48,000, according to the inaugural committee’s financial filings.
The governor’s office also refused to let a Union Leader photographer or reporter attend his most recent inaugural party, held Friday at the Doubletree Hilton in Manchester.
The NHDP has used the payments from the inaugural committee to criticize the governor as he begins his second term.
“It is incredibly concerning — though not surprising — that after weeks of reports and questions, Gov. Sununu is refusing to comply with a Right-to-Know request about how he has spent his inaugural funds, including reimbursing himself and making payments to his family and lobbyist friends,” NHDP Chairman Ray Buckley said in a statement following Sununu’s second inaugural speech on Thursday. “The people of New Hampshire deserve better, and we will keep working to demand accountability until Sununu releases these public documents.”
The party said in a subsequent statement that it is reviewing the rejection letter and “working with our lawyer to examine our options.”
The NHDP could sue in Superior Court for the documents. But the question of what kinds of records the governor’s office must produce is complicated, and it’s one that has a history of bipartisanship — both Republican and Democratic governors have consistently held that they are not subject to the state’s Right-to-Know law.
The law, as it relates to the governor, has gone through a number of iterations since its inception in 1967. In 1989, the Legislature extended the definition of public bodies subject to the law to include “the governor with the governor’s council,” but it does not explicitly say that records maintained by the office of the governor apart from the council are public.
Over the years, the Attorney General’s office has advised both Republican and Democratic governors that they are not subject to the Right-to-Know law.
“If you look at the definitions of what a public agency or a public body is (in the law), the governor’s office may not clearly fit into those categories,” said Joseph Foster, who served as state attorney general from 2013 to 2017.
Governors have instead selectively decided to produce records under the less-stringent Article 1 Section 8 of the state constitution, which states that “the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.”
But some public records advocates believe that the language of the Right-to-Know law does extend to include the governor.
“It also includes any ‘office of the state,’” wrote David Taylor, vice president of the advocacy group Right To Know NH. “I think the governor would therefore be an agency.”
The New Hampshire Supreme Court has never issued a definitive ruling on whether the governor’s office is subject to the Right-to-Know law.