IT TOOK 14 years, but Secretary of State Bill Gardner finally got to take a victory lap over a Legislative Budget Audit finding in 2008 that his office had misspent $1 million in federal money.
The story got big headlines at the time, after the LBA had concluded Gardner’s office should not have used federal Help America Vote Act money to build an annex to the State Archives Building in Concord.
The auditors maintained HAVA did not permit states to use the money for “capital” expenses.
Gardner and his team in 2007 pointed out the space was used exclusively to administer the HAVA program.
They also maintained the buildout was a proper use of the money, since over these many years it saved the federal government about $500,000 in rental charges.
After three years of reports from the Inspector General for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, that office concluded the building was a prepayment of a lease and therefore fully “allowable” under federal law.
It took until October 2020 for the feds to give Gardner the final word that all these audit issues had been resolved.
Meanwhile, former Democratic nominee for governor Colin Van Ostern of Concord effectively seized on the issue in his 2018 campaign, which nearly resulted in Gardner being unseated as the longest-serving state election head in the nation.
Last Friday, Gardner appeared to defend the latest financial audit from the LBA.
“This (latest) audit is a far cry from the previous one conducted by a different team,” Gardner said.
The latest audit raised a few issues:
— It questioned the use of Investor Education Fund dollars to buy a $28,000 minivan and $3,100 to attend Secretary of State national conferences in the midst of the pandemic when all investor education programs had been suspended.
— It reported that the office underpaid one employee $23,700 in termination pay until auditors brought it to the state’s attention, and it took the agency five years to pay another employee nearly $21,000 in annual pay increases that person was entitled to receive.
Gardner said he would welcome future LBA financial audits.
“We’ve come full circle,” Gardner said.
Fiscal Committee Chairman Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, was one of Gardner’s biggest defenders the moment the first LBA audit came out.
“I remember those headlines. Don’t expect them to be as big now that you’ve been vindicated,” Weyler said.
Another Sununu clue?
Every few weeks it seems we have another political appointment that strongly suggests Gov. Chris Sununu will not run for reelection in 2022.
The latest was Sununu’s pick to fill a new post in the Department of Energy.
He nominated longtime state Senate aide and Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Elliott of Goffstown to become the director of division of policy at a salary of $109,000 a year.
Councilor Cinde Warmington, D-Concord, was the only vote last week against the appointment of Mark Sanborn of Gilford as the next assistant commissioner in the Department of Environmental Services.
Sanborn worked for the past year in the governor’s office of strategic services.
More judicial picks
Sununu nominated three more lawyers to fill vacancies in the circuit court judicial system.
The latest picks are Ellen Christo of Hampton Falls, Michael Zaino of Hampton and Todd Prevett of Mont Vernon.
Political observers know Christo well. Her late husband and law partner, Tom, was a longtime GOP fundraiser and ran for the U.S. Senate.
Last week the council unanimously approved Sununu’s judicial picks of Christine Casa of Portsmouth and Kevin Rauseo of Hudson.
Flooding relief requests
Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan said next month she will bring the Executive Council contracts to assist in making improvements to state roads damaged in July floods that hit towns hard in Sullivan and Grafton counties.
Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, asked state homeland security officials to consult with officials in these small communities to determine what help the state may need to provide.
Local towns have to pick up to 25% of the emergency costs of cleanup.
“These towns aren’t going to be able to cut these checks locally,” Morse said.
A never-used law on the books permits the state to issue low-interest loans for towns to pay their share of cleanup costs.
State officials said parts of some local roads may not be reopened until this winter, because the Biden administration first must declare a state of emergency and then release federal cleanup money.
Sen. Robert Guida, R-Warren, said he’ll pursue legislation in 2022 that would permit the state to declare its own emergency from a natural disaster.
This could permit towns to do some cleanup work with access to those state loan dollars while they are waiting for federal help, he said.
Another special election
Voters this fall will pick a replacement for state Rep. Anne Copp, R-Derry, who resigned last month.
The primary will be on Oct. 19 and the general election on Dec. 7.
If only one Democrat and one Republican file, the final election will be on the October date.
The filing period for the seat runs this Monday through Friday.
By the numbers, you’ve got to install the GOP nominee as the favorite, given all 10 elected from Derry last November were Republicans, and Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by 7% in that election.
As yet, no special elections have been called for the vacancies created by the resignations of Reps. Lynne and Russell Ober, both R-Hudson, and Michael Gunski, R-Goffstown.
Pelham politicos are watching this one closely. Voters in Hudson and Pelham together elect 11 House members. Pelham is big enough on its own to have three state reps, but only two from the town were elected in November.
Laconia property for sale
The two-year state budget authorized the state to begin the process of marketing for private sale the lakefront property that used to house the former Laconia State School.
The parcel later became the site of a minimum-security state prison.
Sununu has insisted the best use for the state-owned parcel would be private development.
Administrative Services Commissioner Charlie Arlinghaus said this process has begun with a request for proposals for the state to hire a real estate broker to manage the sale.
The deadline for turning in those proposals comes early next month, he said.
Paid chair for parole board
The Executive Council has made Adult Parole Board Chairman Jennifer Sargent of Hanover the first to be a full-time state employee.
Sargent will earn $88,810 a year leading the nine-person board.
Creating this full-time post was a major recommendation in the 2019 performance audit that concluded the parole agency needed to modernize its operations.
The just-passed state budget contained the funding for the position.
Sununu named Sargent, who has been a senior lecturer at Dartmouth College, as chairman in January 2020.
The timing was appropriate, coming while the council was meeting at Salem High School, where Sununu gave a proclamation in honor of the lifelong service of former House speaker and Salem resident Donna Sytek.
For years, Sytek served as the volunteer chairman of the parole board.
She called for many of the same reforms that emerged from the 2019 audit of the agency.
Center closing critic quits
There was bipartisan support for closing Sununu Youth Services Center, another big-ticket item in the budget trailer bill.
The closure is to be completed by March 1, 2023.
But a veteran member of the Juvenile Parole Board, Susan Kelly of Manchester, said the decision was the last straw for her.
In her resignation letter, Kelly said the Division of Children, Youth and Families made many decisions “simply as a means of cutting costs.”
”The recent decisions on replacing the Sununu Youth Services were made by the Department of Health and Human Services and DCYF with no input from the parole board and a flagrant disregard for its expertise,” Kelly wrote.
”I find myself morally unable to continue working for these groups; the juveniles of the state of New Hampshire deserve better.”
DOJ gets more legal money
When it comes to paying for outside legal help, the Legislature has long kept the Department of Justice on a very short leash.
The six-week-old state budget gave DOJ only $350,000 for “litigation expenses.” Attorney General John Formella wasted no time asking for more.
The Legislative Fiscal Committee last Friday accommodated his request, approving without any debate another $2.7 million.
About $1 million is needed to continue the criminal investigation into allegations of sexual and physical abuse by former staff at the Youth Development Center in Manchester.
Formella said his office estimates it will use another $845,000 to defend the education funding lawsuit, and another $630,000 to deal with “ongoing antitrust investigation” into ongoing mergers in the health care field.