Ethics complaint filed against Milford state senator Bragdon for taking $180K job at quasi-public agency

CONCORD – The Legislative Ethics Committee agreed Monday, Oct. 28, to open a preliminary investigation into whether former Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, violated ethics guidelines and state laws when he become the CEO of the Local Government Center.

State Rep. Rick Watrous, D-Concord, lodged the charges that Bragdon acted improperly in actions he took before and during accepting the $180,000-a-year job while he was president of the Senate in mid-August.

“Bragdon should not have used his public office to attain the job’s considerable personal benefits. Accepting such a thing from an organization with so much financial and legal business before the state is prohibited by the Ethics Guidelines and RSA 15-B,” Watrous said.

In essence, Watrous maintains that in taking a job with the giant, quasi-public entity, Bragdon took an illegal gift.

“The LGC wanted a political insider to attain a resolution of its legal issues with the state, so they hired a powerful state senator,” said Watrous, a three-term state representative. “Bragdon knew that the LGC’s purpose in hiring him was to influence official activity of the state in regard to the LGC.”

Bragdon denied the accusations and insisted any inquiry would result in dismissal of the charges.

“I think the record will show I was hired to show organizational leadership and not to influence legislation,” Bragdon said. “Though anyone can file an ethics complaint against a legislator, I am confident that I have followed the pertinent laws in this matter.”

On Aug. 16, three days after taking the job, Bragdon announced he would step down as Senate president to avoid the any appearance of a conflict of interest. At first, he maintained he could remain as the Senate boss and also head the LGC.

While Bragdon retained his seat on the Senate, he was replaced as president by Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, last month.

On Sept. 1, the LGC completed a reorganization, splitting off into three, not-for-profit corporations.

Bragdon runs the most financially lucrative one, HealthTrust Inc., that with more than $400 million in assets is one of the five biggest risk pools for public employee health insurance in the country.

The ethics complaint further alleges Bragdon failed to disclose a conflict when he named Sen. Jeannie Forrester, R-
Meredith, to a study committee on the LGC’s future while he was seeking its top post.

The committee voted, 6-0, to take this initial step and Chairman Martin Gross urged the media and public not to read anything into it.

“This does not constitute in any manner or means that Senator Bragdon violated the rules. This is to get the additional information we think we need,” Gross said.

Gross will send Bragdon’s lawyer, Russell Hilliard, a letter seeking more information, the details of which were not made public because they had not been finalized.

“As we go forward, when we get responses, they will be made public,” Gross said.

The committee will deliberate on this complaint at a future meeting that has not been scheduled, he said.

The committee met behind closed doors to discuss the Bragdon matter for more than an hour before Gross announced the initial action.

In a written response two weeks ago, Bragdon’s lawyer Hilliard said his client’s actions were in compliance with ethics rules and laws.

“These allegations are not true,” Hilliard wrote.

Before taking the job, Hilliard said Bragdon made it clear that he would disqualify himself from any legislation affecting the former LGC risk pools that manage insurance policies for local government.

As for naming Forrester to the study committee on July 19, Hilliard said Bragdon made that decision on July 2, more than a week before former Interim Executive Director George Bald had approached him about seeking the job.

A Democratic Party spokesman said Bragdon’s statements aren’t credible.

“The facts are clear; Senator Bragdon was in the midst of interviewing for a taxpayer-funded, $180,000-a-year job with the LGC, when he appointed Senator Jeanie Forrester to a regulatory study committee with jurisdiction over the LGC – an inherent conflict of interest and misuse of power,” said Harrell Kirstein, the party’s communications director.

Watrous said Bragdon could have, but did not ask the ethics panel for an advisory opinion on whether he could take the LGC job.

Yet in 2011, then-Senate President Bragdon asked the ethics panel to advise whether accepting a business lobby dinner ticket worth $110 for free was an illegal gift, Watrous pointed out.

As a Concord city councilor, Watrous has lodged a number of ethics charges against his colleagues including Mayor Jim Bouley, a prominent lobbyist in Concord. None of those resulted in any sanctions.

The last time the ethics panel took this step was in 2010 against former House Democratic Whip Daniel Eaton, of Stoddard.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua

Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).