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State GOP sues over documents related to Dartmouth-Hitchcock contract with N.H. Hospital

  • Governor Maggie Hassan at the ‘Monitor’ ed board on Monday, October 10, 2016. GEOFF FORESTER



Monitor staff
Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In the first major public records lawsuit brought against Gov. Maggie Hassan, the New Hampshire Republican Party is challenging her administration’s decision to redact and withhold documents related to a controversial staffing contract with Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

The state Republican Party, in a filing submitted Monday in Merrimack County Superior Court, requested that the records be released and a decision be expedited before the Nov. 8 election.

“For months we have acted in good faith and filed Right-To-Know requests to access public documents that the taxpayers of NH have a right to see,” said Chairwoman Jennifer Horn in a statement. “In response Gov. Hassan has tried to stonewall, delay, and hide these records in an attempt to cover-up the scandals engulfing her administration.”

Hassan’s office dismissed the suit as “a blatant political stunt.” The Democrat is seeking to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte in a competitive race.

“The governor’s office has been timely and responsive to right-to-know requests in accordance with the state Constitution,” said Hassan’s spokesman, William Hinkle. “This is merely a frivolous and obvious political ploy during the height of election season.”

Hassan’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services turned over hundreds of records to the state Republican Party last month in response to its request for information about a $36.5 million staffing contract that puts Dartmouth-Hitchcock in charge of psychiatric care at New Hampshire Hospital.

Hassan’s office blacked out information on some pages and withheld other documents entirely, citing executive privilege. Attorney Chuck Douglas, who is representing the state Republican Party, said the administration’s redactions are too broad and the response doesn’t adequately explain why some documents were withheld.

“There were almost 100 pages of documents involving the Dartmouth-Hitchcock contract that are in-full or in-part blocked out,” he said. “We don’t think there’s anything justifying blocking those pages.”

The state’s right-to-know law doesn’t apply to the governor, but the public has been able to seek such records under the New Hampshire Constitution. Even though it’s not written in state law, courts have generally recognized the governor’s right to exempt certain records through executive privilege. The claim hasn’t recently been challenged in state courts.

The superior court has yet to decide whether it will expedite the case.

The Dartmouth-Hitchcock contract has come under intense scrutiny. Nearly a dozen psychiatrists and nurses were pushed out of the hospital following a labor dispute with the provider. Days after Dartmouth-Hitchcock won the contract, it announced plans to lay off hundreds of workers by year end. That estimate has since been revised down to 84 worker layoffs.

The issue has become politicized. The National Republican Senatorial Committee began airing a television ad last month featuring a former nurse practitioner at New Hampshire Hospital who accuses Hassan of being “corrupt” or “inept” in her management of the contract.

Douglas, whose firm represented a dozen New Hampshire Hospital mental health workers during the labor dispute, said its not a conflict of interest to file the lawsuit now because the psychiatric practice group has dissolved. “We don’t represent them anymore,” he said.

Hassan’s campaign called the lawsuit a “last minute publicity stunt.”

“With two weeks until the election and a new poll showing Ayotte nine points down, it’s clear that Ayotte’s allies will do anything to try to distract from her failed political calculation on Donald Trump and her close ties to the corporate special interests funding her campaign,” said Hassan’s campaign spokesman, Aaron Jacobs.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)