Dave Lang knew the critical documents existed that would help him prove his argument, but even still, it was no small feat making them public.
Lang, the former president of the state firefighters’ union, had inside information about a government insurance risk pool manager that he believed was holding on to too much of its member municipalities’ and school districts’ surplus premiums.
“At the beginning of the year, you guess what you’re going to need and you get money from people” through health insurance premiums, Lang said. “At the end, if you have money left over, you gotta give it back.”
He learned this because he’d been a member of HealthTrust’s board of directors, until he resigned in protest in 2003. But before anyone would believe him, he said, he needed to shed light on the information he’d seen as a trustee.
Lang said he requested all kinds of documents – meeting minutes, financials, reports, contracts – and was “stonewalled” at each turn. He brought the case to the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in his favor.
“But then what happened? We were provided copies of that information and it was heavily redacted, so we had to go back,” he said.
This time, Lang said, he asked for even more information and won again.
“It’s important because it told a story. The documents actually told a story about what happened,” he said.
Ultimately, almost a decade after Lang resigned from the board and began his crusade, he was vindicated. A judicial review in 2012 resulted in an order that HealthTrust’s parent Local Government Center refund more than $52 million to public employees, retirees and municipal members that it improperly held above a reasonable surplus.
Lang, a retired Hampton firefighter, said he knew all along he was right. He went around with charts and graphs trying to convince anyone he could to join his cause. But at first, he said, “People looked at me and said, ‘No, that can’t be true. This is not happening.’ ”
“But the documents told a story,” he added.
“It wasn’t Dave Lang who did it alone,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “It was the firefighters who got behind me. It was the senators. It was the secretary of state. It was the Bureau of Securities Regulation. It was the newspapers. It was the public. It was the concerned taxpayer folks. It was the progressives. It was everybody.”
And it was the information that he fought to make public that persuaded those groups to support him, he said.
“We never could have done this without the Supreme Court upholding the superior court judge’s decision, saying they had to release this information,” he said.
But 15 years after his quest began, Lang said “the lessons have not been learned.” People are still being stonewalled, “and I’m sad to say, that over at HealthTrust), not a lot has changed. There’s still too much money being held.”
Lang reflected: “Government has got to be transparent. The elected officials and the management of government doesn’t own any of this stuff, so they have a responsibility to let the people and the public know what’s happening, what they’re doing, the decisions they’re making, the rationale for those decisions.”
“All too many times, elected officials, when faced with a decision, feel more comfortable making that decision behind closed doors and not in the light of day,” he said. “When that happens, that really is an inefficient way to run government.”
Last month, Lang graduated after 16 years as the president of the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire. He’s now the political director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Association of Fire Fighters, where he said he’ll do much of the same work, representing more than 300,000 members in the U.S. and Canada.
He said he’ll be focused on helping people understand the work that firefighters and paramedics do. But Lang said he believes well-meaning politicians will sometimes shield difficult information from the public – and he’ll have no shortage of opportunities in Washington to keep that impulse in check.
“Sometimes they get discussing things and they feel like people are going to be upset, and sometimes they shouldn’t tell them,” he said. “That’s the time they should really tell them.”
(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, email@example.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)