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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Four months into the job, AG Joseph Foster says office is busy with criminal investigations

As New Hampshire’s appointed and unelected attorney general, Joseph Foster said he’s willing to take any political heat about withholding information from the public and media about ongoing criminal investigations.

During a wide-ranging interview with The Telegraph editorial board, Foster, 54, of Nashua, vowed to be a strong advocate for his agency in the future to receive more staff and resources since the AG’s office has the same number of lawyers as it did 30 years ago. ...

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As New Hampshire’s appointed and unelected attorney general, Joseph Foster said he’s willing to take any political heat about withholding information from the public and media about ongoing criminal investigations.

During a wide-ranging interview with The Telegraph editorial board, Foster, 54, of Nashua, vowed to be a strong advocate for his agency in the future to receive more staff and resources since the AG’s office has the same number of lawyers as it did 30 years ago.

Attorney generals in 43 states are elected and Foster said in New Hampshire, the state’s top law enforcement official with a four-year term confirmed by the Executive Council can withstand demands for the early release of information about the state’s crime-solving work.

In his first four months on the job, Foster said he’s asked prosecutors why information in some cases can’t be released, and each time he was satisfied because it could jeopardize a prosecution and disclose a further probe that can uncover related crimes.

“I know they say very little,” Foster said of his agency’s well-earned reputation for “no comment” before someone’s arrest and revealing few details before a case comes to trial.

“I do think they try to get information out as quickly as they can.”

Some elected state prosecutors bow to public pressure and release more information that can taint the case or even prove incorrect, Foster continued.

“The last thing you want to do in the context of a criminal investigation is put out information that is wrong,” Foster said.

As for the office as a whole, Foster said with 55 lawyers he runs the third largest firm in the state but it has to “practice triage every day” and pick what to work on and what gets left for another day.

The sole exceptions to that triage are its two primary duties to prosecute murder cases and defend state government and the Legislature against legal challenges, Foster explained

“One of the most challenging aspects is there is way more going on than you can possibly keep a pulse on all the time,” Foster said.

“I am still figuring that part of the job out.”

A private lawyer specializing in corporate law for 29 years, Foster was taken aback by the breadth of what his department has to do.

“It does much more than I think even leaders realize; they turn out an incredible quantity and quality of work,” Foster said.

Over the past 30 years, many state agencies have hired their own lawyers, a trend Foster said should be minimized.

If Foster could change one thing, he’d ask the Legislature to give him flexibility to reshuffle lawyers and support staff among its many divisions rather than have to ask permission from the Legislature and Executive Council to make any such transfer.

Unlike most state agencies competing for money in the state budget every two years, Foster said the AG’s office has no built-in advocates.

“I would say this: It doesn’t have a natural constituency or groups from the outside that are going to push for their side to get noticed. I am going to try to do that,” Foster said.

On other topics, Foster said he remains philosophically opposed to legalizing casino gambling yet embraces a commission he now serves on to come up with the best enforcement scheme should a casino ever become legal.

Foster said he’s skeptical that short of amending the state Constitution, future policymakers could limit the landscape to one, “high-end, highly-regulated” casino as Gov. Maggie Hassan has proposed.

“If you go across the country it tends to proliferate and this state has very limited resources to raise revenue,” Foster said.

The commission should examine whether there needs to be beefed-up enforcement of existing gambling that benefit charities across the state, Foster said.

Last week, a state regulator said the privately managed games operate like “nine casinos” with limited oversight.

“There is a ton of money going through that process. I think the agency is doing the best he can do with the personnel he has,” Foster said of the Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission.

“There simply isn’t enough there. Is anything untoward happening? The fact of the matter is we don’t know. With that much cash you certainly worry about it.”

Foster said he supports the state’s relatively benign ethical code and conflict of interest guidelines given the Legislature is the lowest-paid and largest in the country with very little staff to support it.

“If you had an incredibly strict law you would probably be driving people out of serving. Then you would have people with a lot less experience acting on the complex matters they were dealing with,” Foster said.

As a 10-year, former legislator and Senate majority leader, Foster admitted there were times he was surprised certain lawmakers working in an industry that could clearly benefit from specific legislation did not declare a conflict.

The current ethics code allows legislators to declare a conflict and then take part and vote on that matter.

“Is it perfect? No, but I think the system by and large works. I don’t think there is much improper or certainly more illegal conduct that I am aware of. I think the state operates very clean actually and I think it is a function of this volunteer process.”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).