Saturday, October 2, 2010

NH AG: Concord school attorney broke lobbying law

Investigation reveals collusion between state, school officials regarding charter study commission

EXCLUSIVE: Must credit

The N.H. Attorney General’s Office has found that Concord School District attorney John Teague, of Upton & Hatfield, LLP, violated the state’s lobbying statute in 2009. During the investigation, the AG’s Office also revealed information showing that state and school officials worked behind closed doors to rig the public process surrounding the creation of the charter study commission.
In a warning letter to Teague on Sept. 23, Matthew Mavrogeorge, an attorney with the AG’s civil bureau, stated that Teague violated the law on May 4, 2009, when he – along with Concord School Superintendent Dr. Chris Rath and Board President Kass Ardinger – met with state Senate President Sylvia Larsen and state Sen. Betsi DeVries, a Manchester Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Public & Municipal Affairs Committee, to discuss HB319. This bill, which was approved by the House, would have turned over regulation of Concord’s school district charter to Concord residents.
At this meeting, which was private and held in Larsen’s office, Teague, Rath, and Ardinger discussed “concerns” they had with the bill. Rath requested that Teague attend the meeting; he was paid $270 to prepare for and attend the meeting.
According to Larsen’s statement to the AG’s Office, Teague, Rath, and Ardinger “expressed ideas” about “how to respond to HB 319 and were looking for Senate support for these suggestions.” Larsen told investigators that Teague came up with the idea for a Charter Commission to study the school district charter.
In the AG’s investigation, Teague admitted that he was asked by Larsen and Rath to “come up with a draft of what the Charter Commission might look like.” Teague gave the AG a copy of the draft that he “ultimately created for Senate President Larsen,” according to the warning letter. The AG determined that Teague’s participation in the meeting constituted lobbying, and since Teague was not registered as a lobbyist at the time, he violated the statute. The AG stated that Teague believed he did not have to register since he was “promoting alternative language as legal services on behalf of a long time client.”
The AG’s office requested Teague “make a retroactive registration with the Secretary of State regarding this lobbying activity and fulfill the public disclosure components of the lobbying registration statute.” Teague, in a letter back to Mavrogeorge, stated that on Sept. 24, he requested forms from the Secretary of State’s Office but that office was “uncertain as to what was meant by this request and was unable to provide me with any forms.”
Interestingly, violations of RSA-15 are misdemeanors, according the the statute: "CHAPTER 15: LOBBYISTS, Section 15:8 Penalty. – Whoever violates any provision of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor if a natural person, or guilty of a felony if any other person. Whoever shall make and file any statement under this chapter which is to his or her knowledge false shall be deemed guilty of perjury and punished accordingly."
Instead, it appears that Mavrogeorge is saying to the school board's attorney, “Well, you engaged in criminal activity, but we're not going to charge you with that because you didn't think you were,” which is a strange thing to be saying to an experienced attorney who violates this kind of law.

An odd conclusion

The AG Office’s opinion apparently found that Teague did not violate the lobbying statute during his May 14, 2009, testimony before the state Senate Public & Municipal Affairs Committee hearing, 10 days after the secret meeting.
This is odd since, in the warning letter, Mavrogeorge determines that Teague should have been registered as a lobbyist for the May 4 private meeting and has requested that he retroactively register as such. If this is the case, before Teague testified on May 14, it seems that he should have been wearing the lobbyist tag, since he would have been registered as a lobbyist the week before.
As I have written in other posts and as is noted in the AG’s warning letter, the law was amended in September 2009, which was included in the warning letter: “’[p]ublic testimony before a legislative committee or subcommittee’ are considered communications that are ‘excluded’ from the registration imposed by RSA 15 ‘and shall not be considered in a determination of whether a person is required to register or report as a lobbyist.’”
The AG’s decision seems to say that Teague’s testimony on behalf of the school district didn’t trigger the need to register. However, his actions before his testimony triggered the registration requirement. While I’m not a lawyer, I’m puzzled how this was not a violation of the law at the time.

A rigged public process

The larger and, frankly, more frightening and repulsive point, is what a charade this entire process was. Many of us testified at the Public & Municipal Affairs Committee hearing, thinking that our ideas, thoughts, concerns, and request to control our own school charter would be taken seriously by DeVries and the other members of the committee. Every citizen who spoke or signed in that day was in favor of the legislation that Rath and Teague opposed.
However, unbeknownst to us, the fix was already in, as noted in the Mavrogeorge’s finding: Teague, requested by Larsen and Rath, with DeVries in attendance, was to draft new legislation that, later, magically appeared, squashing the bill that had already been approved on the House side.
Neither Teague nor DeVries mentioned the previous May 4 meeting during the May 14 committee hearing. Neither mentioned that there was a revised bill coming. Every single person who forwarded legislation, amendments, testimony, both written and verbal, thought they were getting a fair hearing, but they weren’t. The entire process was a sham.
What does this say about our legislative process when a handful of officials can meet behind closed doors and create a backroom deal that strips away the ability of parents, taxpayers, and Concord citizens to have the power to change their school district charter?


Everyone involved in this incident stole the public process away from the people and rigged everything to a predetermined conclusion. The Legislature, its legislation, committees, boards, and study commissions, are not supposed to work that way. Preservation of their flawed elementary school consolidation plan, a scheme that tears down historic buildings, warehouses our children into four schools, raises taxes, and spends more than $150 million, is what motivated all of this. If this is such a great project, there would be no need for all of these shenanigans. However, here it all is.
It is clearly time for a public hearing by the Concord school board and complete airing of all the materials, documents, emails, and information regarding all activities surrounding this incident in public. The public deserves answers to the many unanswered questions and heads should roll. And yes, there is more coming, too – I have a stack of documents with more to write – so stay tuned.

1 comment:

Ben Venator said...

It worries me that such criminal activity may be downplayed due to the apparently small amount of money involved (i.e. the few hundred paid to Atty. Teague). Whatever costs associated with the Commission should be included, and then there are the millions to be spent by the schools without direct consent of the taxpayers. I am also very disappointed that this has not been picked up by other media outlets. I hope that omission changes soon.