A lot of people at the State House are eagerly awaiting the response from Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to an inquiry from state Sen. Harold French, R-Franklin.
French wants to know if state officials or commission members who fail to file financial disclosure forms required under state law are acting without legal authority, which sets the stage for any decisions made or contracts issued to be challenged or overturned.
Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards told the Union Leader last week that the Department of Justice is in the process of preparing a response to French, which will be made public at the beginning of the week.
As we reported on Thursday, 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.
The law has been around since 2006, and its intention seems clear: "All persons subject to this chapter shall file a statement of financial interests annually no later than the third Friday in January . No person required to file a statement of financial interest shall be eligible to serve in his or her appointed capacity prior to filing a statement in accordance with this section."
Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers, who runs the biggest agency in state government, failed to file his 2018 disclosure until last month, but says he was told by the Attorney General's office that he's covered by the disclosure he filed in 2016 when he was appointed.
Perhaps that's a hint of what's coming from the AG office, but others interpret the law to mean a new form has to be filed every January.
Chip Kimball, chairman of the state Wetlands Council, points out that this issue has come up in the past. A 2015 audit of the Department of Revenue Administration by the Legislative Budget Assistant identified 14 individuals who either didn't file or didn't on time.
"Noncompliance increases the risk that potential conflicts of interest may not be properly disclosed," warned the auditors. "Additionally, the validity of decisions in which noncompliant board members participate may be called into question."
LBA auditors have made the same observation about the Department of Environmental Services in an audit of DES wetlands permitting now under way, according to Kimball.
"The corrective action is for the agencies to do what DRA has done: Collect the disclosure form from those required to file, make sure all have filed and pass the forms on to the Secretary of State. DES will be using this process for the January 2019 filings," said Kimball
"It's extremely unfortunate that the LBA and its auditors did not pass this finding on to those required to file. Had they done so, many possible problems might have been resolved. There is also an obvious lack of proper training by the state here."
Kimball is not a big fan of a proposal by state Rep. Werner Horn, R-Franklin, to impose a $5,000 fine on officials who knowingly fail to file their disclosure forms.
"The solution here is not a bigger fine; the solution is better education and implementation," Kimball said. "If employees and the hundreds of volunteer board and commission members knew that they would not have standing if they fail to file, they would file."
According to Kimball, this is for the simple reason that no one wants to waste their time attending meetings when they have no standing.
"Education should come from each department for its employees and perhaps from the AG civil division for volunteer boards and commissions," he said.
Blame for bad ballots
Another big announcement from the Department of Justice is expected in the week ahead, regarding 126 incorrect absentee ballots for the November election that had to be corrected and resent.
Town clerks who feel they've been improperly blamed for not catching the errors point out that ultimate responsibility for ensuring the accuracy of the ballots rests with Secretary of State Bill Gardner and his office.
"They are a help, but it's ultimately the Secretary of State's responsibility," he said. "You want perfection and you strive for it, but a lot of times you don't get there. If this is all there is (126 errors out of 9,000 unique ballots in the primary and general election), we will be at 99.9 percent accuracy, like most elections in the past."