CONCORD — While State Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith) toured her district with Commissioner of Agriculture Lorraine Merrill yesterday, the New Hampshire Democratic Party nipped at her heels, charging she is "neck deep" in the controversy arising from the hiring of Senator Peter Bragdon (R-Milford), then president of the Senate, to lead the Local Government Center.
Forrester countered that she had done nothing wrong and indicated that any suggestion that she had was based on a lack of understanding of the time line connecting related events.
In a statement released Thursday, Democratic spokesman Harrell Kirstein claimed that documents obtained from the LGC reveal that Bragdon spoke with Forrester about seeking the $180,000 per year position three days before he appointed her to a study committee charged with reviewing the conduct of the LGC and studying changes to the statute governing it. The information, he said, contradicts earlier explanations of the circumstances leading to the committee assignment offered by Forrester and Bragdon.
"Forrester and Bragdon owe the people of New Hampshire a full explanation — and this time an honest one — of their recent conversations about the LGC," Kirstein declared.
Local Government Center is a quasi-public organization that oversees a health care trust, a workers' compensation trust and a liability and property insurance trust for member municipalities. It is embroiled in litigation with numerous municipalities over $36 million is surplus funds it collected and has an appeal pending before the state Supreme Court.
Bragdon was originally one of five people targeted for recruitment by LGC's board for the executive director position. He began working at LGC on August 14. At first he intended to remain as Senate president but later agreed that was inappropriate. He will, however, keep his Senate seat.
A string of e-mails between Bragdon and George Bald, interim executive director of the LGC, indicate that Bragdon first took an interest in succeeding Bald following a recruitment conversation between the two on July 11. "It was a pleasure talking with you earlier today . . . quite an unexpected turn the conversation took," Bragdon wrote, adding that he attached his resume.
Bald replied "I am glad you are giving this some consideration."
The exchange of e-mails resumed on July 16, after Bragdon returned from a forum of state senate presidents in Seattle. After discounting concerns about conflicts of interest and indicating he could serve for 18 months or more, he remarked "I happened to be on the phone with Senator Forrester a few minutes ago, and given her background as a former town administrator, as well as having worked with people like Don Jutton at Municipal Resources, Inc., I thought I'd mention the conversation you and I had. Her reaction could not have been more positive to the idea."
Three days later, on July 19, Bragdon — or Bragdon's office — wrote to Forrester formally appointing her to the study committee.
"No wonder she was silent about the massive and inherent conflicts of interest in Bragdon's new LGC job," Kirstein wrote. "She knew about it nearly a month in advance and said nothing. What did Forrester and Bragdon discuss on July 16th?" he asked, calling Forrester's appointment "a clear breach of the New Hampshire General Court's Ethics guidelines."
When Kirstein originally leveled the charges earlier this week, Forrester said that she was not aware that Bragdon was contemplating the position with the LGC when he approached her about serving on the study committee. She said that she could not recall just when this conversation occurred, but insisted it was before she knew of his interest in the LGC job. Likewise, Bragdon told the Concord Monitor that he appointed Forrester before he began considering the position. "Obviously I would stay from that," he was quoted to say, "and most likely if there were legislation that came from that I would recuse myself from voting."
Presented with the documentation released yesterday, Forrester clarified that she and Bragdon had separate conversations about the committee assignment and the LGC position. Again she insisted that when Bragdon verbally asked her and she agreed to serve on the study committee she was not aware of his interest in the LGC position, but could not recall just when that conversation took place, only that it was before she learned he was speaking with LGC.
"I don't know whether he was or he wasn't," she said. "It did not come up. He asked me if I would serve on the committee and I agreed."
We had two conversations," Forrester continued, confirming that Bragdon spoke to her about the position with LGC, presumably on July 16 as Bragdon's e-mail indicated.. "He asked me If he could use me as a reference and I said absolutely. Senator Bragdon is an ethical and honest person and I thought he was well qualified for the position."
Forrester rejected suggestions that Bragdon sought to "stack" the study committee, noting that the president of the Senate had only the one appointment and three of its five members are Democrats. "He had to appoint a senator. You tell me how that is stacking the committee," she said. Furthermore, she insisted "I can tell you with certainty that he didn't call me to tell me how to vote."