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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Having second thoughts: Felon lawmaker Laughton reconsidering whether to resign

NASHUA – The state’s first elected transgender lawmaker, who announced plans to relinquish the N.H. House seat after news surfaced about her felony convictions, is having second thoughts about stepping down.

“I am going to put the question out to all of you …” Laughton, D-Nashua, posted on Facebook around noon Wednesday. “Should I pull out and resign or not. Keep in mind I have said that I would on TV. I have the letter in hand all I have to do is sign it and send it to the State.” ...

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NASHUA – The state’s first elected transgender lawmaker, who announced plans to relinquish the N.H. House seat after news surfaced about her felony convictions, is having second thoughts about stepping down.

“I am going to put the question out to all of you …” Laughton, D-Nashua, posted on Facebook around noon Wednesday. “Should I pull out and resign or not. Keep in mind I have said that I would on TV. I have the letter in hand all I have to do is sign it and send it to the State.”

Her statements came a day after she announced she would vacate her seat amid pressure to resign due to felony convictions in 2008. Her second thoughts lasted throughout the day Wednesday.

“I don’t believe we’ve received any correspondence,” Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said.

Along with Laughton’s Facebook comment, she also shared a Wikipedia link highlighting the “List of American state and local politicians convicted of crimes” from 1777-2010.

Earlier, she commented on The Telegraph’s editorial calling for her to apologize to voters.

“I never lied and I owe no apologies. As I said to WMUR that the voters knew and for the ones that did not, I would have told them if they asked me. I would not lie to people that I call my friends and neighbors. We must not forget that none of this is over and I am still a Selectman and I am not giving that up if I do not have to. I love you all and we must move forward.”

On Tuesday, Laughton announced her intention of vacating the District 31 seat she won Nov. 6 – although she would not resign formally since she has not yet been sworn into office.

New legislators will be sworn in Dec. 5.

The Laconia Daily Sun and The Telegraph reported last week that Laughton served four months in jail in 2008 on charges of conspiracy to commit credit card fraud. But Laughton, known until December 2010 as Barry Charles Laughton Jr., failed to acknowledge her criminal history to voters, drawing criticism and calls for her resignation from Republican lawmakers and political leaders.

State law prohibits convicted felons from running for or holding office until their final discharge from prison. But legal professionals and political leaders across the state aren’t clear on the definition of “final discharge.”

The secretary of state’s office was still waiting on a determination Wednesday, Scanlan said.

Michael Brown, a senior attorney general, was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

One thing is clear, however: that the law does not require state officials to check candidates’ backgrounds.

“It would be up to the state Legislature to determine that policy,” Scanlan said. “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened and certainly over the course of a legislative session, there have been issues that have come up with the qualification of legislators or actions of legislators that have led to discussion … ‘Should there be some type of screening?’ ”

The single requirement to hold office is the candidate’s existence on the voter checklist in the town for which they want to hold office, he said.

Scanlan was unaware whether other state governments have policies that perform criminal background checks on state and local level candidates.

A growing chorus of politicians, mostly Republicans, have called on Laughton to resign.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Bill O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, criticized Laughton for withholding her criminal background during her campaign for the seat, as well as state Rep.-elect Robert Thompson, D-Manchester, who announced he will give up his seat Wednesday over a residency issue.

“What is even more disturbing is the fact that a convicted felon from Nashua who is still serving a suspended sentence now thinks that this would be a good profile for the New Hampshire House of Representatives,” O’Brien said in a prepared statement, “despite the fact it violates state law, and has removed what was an appropriate resignation.”

Jennifer Horn, a two-time congressional candidate and a favorite to become chairwoman of the Republican State Committee, joined him, calling for Democratic leaders to take action.

“As the new leaders of the Democrat Party in New Hampshire, Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan and Majority Leader Teri Norelli should put a swift end to this story by publicly calling for Laughton’s resignation immediately,” Horn said in a statement. “I agree with her hometown newspaper, The Nashua Telegraph, which said that Laughton not only owes the people of Nashua an apology, but she ought to resign because she broke the public trust by not sharing her criminal past with the very people who put her into office.”

Initially, Laughton was sentenced in 2008 to 7½ to 15 years for conspiracy to commit credit card fraud – all suspended pending 10 years of good behavior, and 3½ to seven years for the falsifying physical evidence – again suspended to 10 years good behavior.

She was sentenced to serve 12 months with four months suspended in the Belknap County Department of Corrections for conspiracy to commit fraudulent use of a credit card.

Republican leaders have argued that Laughton’s sentencing agreement required a 10-year probation period of good behavior and that she hasn’t had a final discharge.

But in the prison system, officials consider final discharge to be when the convict is released, not when parole expires.

If Laughton does submit a letter of resignation to the secretary of state, it would come down to city aldermen to decide how to move forward to find a replacement.

Aldermen, charged with arranging city elections, could schedule a special election for a make-up vote to find her replacement.

Or they could decline to hold the election to save costs, leaving the 400-seat House with one fewer representative throughout the term.

Still in question is Laughton’s post as Ward 4 selectman, which monitors elections at city wards.

If she resigns as state representative, and aldermen opt to hold a special election to replace her, Laughton, and ex-wife Lisa Laughton – who faced similar charges – could still work those polls, working at the checklist table, or sorting, packing or sealing ballots.

“If the AG’s office says the term ‘final discharge’ does not come into play here, she would continue to serve as selectman and ironically be working the polls during the election for the seat she resigned to serve,” City Clerk Paul Bergeron said Wednesday.

But if Laughton takes the advice of people on Facebook, perhaps the House will keep its 400 representatives – including its first transgender member.

“Stacie. Don’t resign. Wait and see what happens,” one person wrote.

“Explore the legality before pulling the trigger,” added another.

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashua
telegraph.com. Also follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).