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Friday, August 16, 2013

LGC deal with Bragdon lowers New Hampshire’s ethical bar

Telegraph Editorial

We can see where New Hampshire Senate President Peter Bragdon would be a good hire to lead the Concord-based Local Government Center, even if he weren’t the state’s second most powerful elected official.

Bragdon, who also serves on the Milford School Board, is smart, respected, well-spoken and, until earlier this week anyway, known as a man of impeccable integrity. He also has experience in the insurance industry. ...

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We can see where New Hampshire Senate President Peter Bragdon would be a good hire to lead the Concord-based Local Government Center, even if he weren’t the state’s second most powerful elected official.

Bragdon, who also serves on the Milford School Board, is smart, respected, well-spoken and, until earlier this week anyway, known as a man of impeccable integrity. He also has experience in the insurance industry.

That said, we can’t see any way that the Senate won’t be tarnished – and perhaps badly – if Bragdon stays there after signing on with the LGC and its implicit entanglements with state government.

The LGC is a consortium of the state’s cities, towns and school districts that provides insurance risk pools for its members. It also has one of the biggest lobbying footprints in Concord. Several Concord law firms have provided lobbying on behalf of the LGC and its subsidiaries, most notably the New Hampshire Municipal Association.

But Bragdon says the LGC and NHMA will soon split into separate entities, leaving the LGC to operate the insurance pools without the lobbying component. That, he says, will clear the way for him to vote, conflict-free, on issues in which the NHMA has an interest. He makes it sound like he’ll have no conflicts beyond those encountered by the average citizen-legislator.

Unfortunately, that’s not how most people will see it. As Senate president, Bragdon can influence the direction and outcome of legislation through more than just his vote. He controls the Senate’s agenda, committee appointments and calendar, among other things. He’s in a position to steer legislation in whichever direction suits him – or his employer.

Former Senate Majority Leader Robert Clegg, a Hudson Republican, put it this way: “Even if he recuses himself, he’s in the ability, as presiding officer, to know where the votes are lining up, and that’s an advantage no one in a competitive business should have,” Clegg said. “He should take the job and resign the seat. I don’t have any animosity towards Peter, and think he’s done a good job as Senate president. I just don’t see how it’s sustainable for him to do both.”

Indeed, to suggest that even a technically sequestered LGC has no interest in what happens in the Statehouse is simply ludicrous.

Especially given the LGC’s ongoing battle with the state’s Bureau of Securities Regulation over insurance pools the LGC has operated on behalf of its members. The BSR argued – and a hearing officer agreed – that the LGC’s insurance operations hoarded millions more in reserves than it needed to meet potential claims. The LGC was ordered to repay $50 million to its members, a ruling it appealed to the state Supreme Court on Monday.

Bragdon’s hiring puts the state in the embarrassing position of having its most powerful legislator leading an organization that is suing the executive branch in a case that is going before the state’s highest court; that’s the kind of thing that can turn a state into a laughing stock.

Further thickening the plot is the question of which master Bragdon would be serving if he tried to do both. Here’s a hint: The LGC job will pay him $180,000 a year; he’ll earn $125 per year as Senate president.

The Bragdon hiring also says something about the LGC, and it might be this: They’ve decided to spend $180,000 to do their Senate lobbying from the inside. That, at least, is how it will look to some and will continue to appear so long as Bragdon stays on as the Senate’s leader.

We also wonder what the hiring says as a possible precedent: Will some of the other deep-pocketed trade organizations – those representing banking, real estate or health care industries, perhaps – start a bidding war to secure the “services” of other senators?

People will undoubtedly question whether Bragdon can legally serve in both capacities, and the answer, sadly, is probably “yes.” The legislature sets its own conflict-of-interest guidelines and employment is one of the exemptions. But not being illegal and being right are not the same thing.

This deal, borne in the state’s ethical vacuum, points out the need for passage of a tough, broad conflict-of-interest and ethics law to prevent arrangements such as this that undermine public confidence in our government institutions.

Maybe we in New Hampshire don’t have very high ethical expectations of our legislators, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have any. The LGC-Bragdon arrangement intuitively fails to meet – and vastly lowers – the principles behind the tepid standards we do have.

The LGC Board of Directors – chaired by Hollis-Brookline School Board Chairman Thomas Enright – also has an opportunity here. They could change the organization’s public perception – currently something akin to an ethically-bankrupt cartel – by asking Bragdon to step down from the Senate, or at least the presidency.

This is also the juncture, it seems, where we learn whether Bragdon is, after all, the man of unquestioned integrity that so many of his supporters thought he was.