This is the week we find out if there is any genuine desire among state lawmakers to put some teeth into an existing law that requires hundreds of upper-level state employees and commission appointees to file financial disclosure forms.
The law is routinely ignored with no consequences, so a database maintained by the Secretary of State’s office is inaccurate and out of date.
The law, known as Chapter 15-A Financial Disclosures, is designed to ensure that the performance of official duties “does not give rise to a conflict of interest” and states that anyone who is out of compliance cannot act on behalf of the state.
But the law was drafted without assigning any individual or state agency the responsibility of enforcing the disclosure requirements.
State Rep. Werner Horn, R-Franklin, has filed legislation (HB 150) that would impose a $5,000 fine on state employees who are required to file so-called 15-A disclosure forms but knowingly fail to do so, and would direct the Attorney General to examine the filings and enforce compliance.
The bill is scheduled for a vote Tuesday by the Executive Departments and Administration Committee.
The fact that the law is so widely disregarded was brought to Horn’s attention by Paul Morrissette, a Franklin businessman, developer and auctioneer who 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 didn’t 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 legal strategy, he was hoping to determine whether any of the state officials involved in evaluating his bids had financial interests in the matter. When he discovered many officials had not even filed the required paperwork, he reached out to his state representative and state senator.
State Sen. Harold French, R-Franklin, raised the issue with Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, who later issued an opinion, written by Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards.
Edwards acknowledged that state officials should not act in their official capacity if they don’t file the required financial statement within 14 days of taking office, but then went on to say failure to file comes with no consequences: “It does not impact any actions the person took with respect to legislation, rule-making or other official functions.”
Morrissette, who testified in support of the bill at its January public hearing, doubts the state will ever see the kind of comprehensive, timely and accurate financial disclosures Chapter 15-A requires.
“After I testified, I had a couple of reps come up to me and they were very complimentary to me for bringing the issue forward,” he said. “It just seems so unjust that we arrest private people for minor violations in New Hampshire, but lawlessness by state employees is somehow different and has a defender on staff in the big office at Department of Justice.”
Despite the Union Leader reporting on the situation, not much has changed.
“I reviewed the 2019 list of everyone required to file,” Morrisette said. “What a joke. Not only are there many people who didn’t file, but organizational charts are not updated either.”
When the Union Leader asked Gov. Chris Sununu about the gaps in the database last year, his legal counsel John Formella said the governor would like to see stepped up compliance, and would be looking for legislative action.
Bills on legalized marijuana, business taxes and election law got the most coverage coming out of a marathon two-day session of the House Wednesday and Thursday, but about 170 other bills either died or moved to the next step in the legislative process.
Retired state employees who have been retired for at least five years could get their first cost of living increase in nearly nine years, with the passage of HB 616, which adds 1.5 percent to annual pensions. After Finance Committee review, the bill will be back for another House vote.
A bill to create a citizens’ right-to-know appeals commission and a right-to-know ombudsman, HB 729, passed in a tight 177-165 vote, over the opposition of the New Hampshire Municipal Association. It now moves to Finance.
A bill to give cities and towns the option of imposing a $2 municipal service fee per room, per night, on tourist-related room rentals passed 195-151, and goes to the Ways and Means Committee.