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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Attorney General accuses House committee of harassing, intimidating DCYF

CONCORD – Attorney General Michael Delaney accused a House committee of having a “chilling effect” on the state’s ability to protect its most vulnerable children by harassing officials with the Division for Children Youth & Families.

In a strongly worded letter to House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, Delaney said the House Redress of Grievances committee repeatedly asked loaded questions and tried to badger those leading DCYF to defend the agency about sensitive and private cases.

“The Committee’s questions to DCYF demonstrate a bias that would lead any neutral observer to conclude that the Committee is motivated by an agenda that does not include a search for the truth,” Delaney wrote in the six-page letter.

He also weighed in against the recent House move to give committee chairs subpoena power. He insisted this would put child protection workers in a no-win predicament.

“State officials will be placed in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to honor a legislative subpoena or adhere to the laws of confidentiality,” Delaney wrote. “Given the bias of the questioning outlined above, I am concerned that subpoena authority will only aggravate, rather than enhance, the due process concerns I bring to your attention.”

O’Brien fired back in a prepared statement, saying Delaney appears more interested in playing politics than in giving citizens a thoughtful response when they ask the Legislature to look into their complaints about government operations.

He described Delaney’s statements as “baffling and inconsistent with accountable government.”

“We certainly did ask that the Department of Justice provide meaningful feedback to improve the process so that our residents could get an open airing of their concerns, but instead we received an attack on allowing New Hampshire citizens a chance to have their voices heard,” O’Brien said.

“Unfortunately, this is just one more example of an attorney general more interested in playing politics than administering justice,” he said.

Rep. Paul Ingbretson, R-Haverhill, the committee chairman, called Delaney’s letter “bizarre” and insisted the committee has not prejudged those citizen complaints it received.

“These charges are very serious,” Ingbretson said. “If they are true, we need to know about it. If they are not true, we need to know that, too. The attorney general’s characterization of our work is just bizarre to me.”

After becoming speaker in December 2010, O’Brien created the grievance committee, which lets the public file petitions alleging improper conduct by state officials.

In its first year, there were 27 petitions, many of which were about child custody and guardian decisions relating to DCYF matters.

Specifically, Delaney objected to the committee asking DCYF whether slandering parents and family members is allowed, are DCYF workers who lie given immunity and does the agency have the right to sabotage a parent’s drug test results.

“I believe the one-sided hearings by the Redress of Grievance Committee are having a chilling effect on those who perform an essential function of state government – protecting children from abuse and neglect,” Delaney wrote.

State prosecutors have advised DCYF workers not to answer these questions while the office requests their withdrawal, Delaney wrote.

“Clearly, the Committee is not asking these questions to inform public hearings but rather, to harass, or perhaps intimidate DCYF,” Delaney concluded. “The fact that these questions are the basis for expanding the Committee’s authority to issue subpoenas is troubling on many levels.”

Last month, Chairman Ingbretson asked the House Rules Committee, and it agreed to forward a change in procedures, to allow chairman to pursue subpoenas.

On March 21, the House voted, 241-114, to extend subpoena power to committee chairs who need to get a majority of the Rules Committee to endorse and the speaker to sign such requests to make them effective.

Ingbretson said he’ll give DCYF Administrator Margaret Bishop another chance to appear in person before pursuing a subpoena about these matters.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter.