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Monday, October 4, 2010

Stephen defends backing pardon

CONCORD – Republican nominee for governor John Stephen defended endorsing a pardon for a convicted arsonist who contributed to multiple Stephen campaigns.

State prosecutors accused Edward J. Socha of wanting legal forgiveness to get out of having to pay $1.6 million in restitution for his crimes.

Socha, 69, of Auburn, gave $1,000 to Stephen’s campaign July 17.

In 2004, Stephen was the first name listed on seven pages of supporters to grant a pardon to Socha for 1991 convictions on one count of conspiracy to commit arson, one of theft by deception and two counts of witness tampering.

“In 2004, I knew the family, and he had served his time,” Stephen said of the pardon endorsement during a telephone interview.

Socha spent three years in prison for his role in the 1984 arson of his home. He admitted illegally cashing in on a $1 million insurance policy and later urged employees who set the fire to keep quiet and paid money for one to leave the area.

Socha’s wife and other family members also donated to Stephen’s congressional campaigns in 2002 and 2008.

“I don’t see any problem with accepting a contribution from Ed Socha,” Stephen said. “Ed Socha has served his sentence, and since then, he has been an upstanding member the community.”

Gov. John Lynch’s campaign condemned Stephen’s actions and claimed it discredited Stephen’s tough-on-crime stance and attacks on Lynch’s controversial new law to reduce prison recidivism.

“It is unbelievable that John Stephen would accept a donation from a convicted arsonist and even support a pardon for this individual so he could duck out from having to pay $1.6 million,” said Pamela Walsh, Lynch’s campaign manager. “This raises the question whether John Stephen would give pardons to his political donors and friends.”

Stephen said if he was elected and Socha renewed his pardon bid, Stephen would not take part in it.

“He has every right to request a pardon,” Stephen said. “I’d have to recuse myself because I know him.’ ”

Stephen said there was no excuse for Socha’s actions.

“I don’t condone his actions, and I find arson a reprehensible crime,” Stephen said. “I prosecuted arson cases in my career as a prosecutor.”

The Executive Council never voted on Socha’s bid because then-Gov. Craig Benson yanked it from the July 2004 agenda.

“I have paid enormously for the mistake I made 20 years ago,” Socha wrote in his application. “I would like to finally be able to put my crime in the past.”

While in state prison, Socha helped on construction projects and the state accepted this assistance as payment of a $100,000 fine he owed.

“To this day, 20 years after the fire and 14 years after my arrest, I am ashamed embarrassed and profoundly sorry for what I did,” Socha wrote.

Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Gallo argued Socha got a lighter punishment than those who set the fire and was undeserving of a pardon.

“In the 10 years since his release, the petitioner has apparently pursued his own financial interests in the construction business and has offered scant evidence in his petition of contributing to his community in any way,” Gallo wrote.

The state prosecutor and insurance company lawyers maintained a pardon could permit Socha to file for bankruptcy and escape the $1.6 million he owed at the time to U.S. Fire Insurance Co.

“As I understand it, a pardon would essentially forgive the restitution order in this case, and I am therefore gravely concerned that the application for pardon by Mr. Socha attempts to vacate this contractual obligation,’” wrote Robert Whaland, a lawyer for the fire insurer.

At the time of the blaze, Socha was one of the city’s wealthiest landlords having built and owned many single-family and apartment house developments. The home burned down was a renovated, 100-year-old mansion and Socha owned an 87,000-acre ranch in Montana.

Stephen said his father, former Manchester Democratic state Sen. Bobby Stephen, remains close to Socha and Stephen’s own family is close to Socha’s son, Will.

A former mayor once gave Socha a key to the city. Socha donated to many GOP campaigns and served on many nonprofit boards, including of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center after one of his children died of a rare disease in 1980.

Socha’s backers for the pardon included many contractors he worked with, friends and other political associates like Manchester Democratic state Rep. Barbara Shaw and C. Arthur Soucy, a longtime Manchester Democratic activist.

The sentencing judge in the case, Douglas Gray, supported Socha’s pardon request.

“I will say that of the many offenders who have appeared before me over the years, Mr. Socha is probably one of the most deserving of a pardon,” Gray wrote. “He was forthright about his conduct and was very ashamed of himself and honestly so.”

Back then, Stephen was state health and human services commissioner.

In 1998 after his release, Socha asked that his deferred sentence be suspended and the insurance company supported the request.

Back then, Stephen was assistant safety commissioner. Stephen did not sign on in support, but Socha’s supporters included Stephen’s wife and father.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or