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Weare officials footing legal bills for officers involved in August shooting

In the six months since a state criminal investigation was opened into an officer-involved shooting in Weare, town officials have dispensed thousands of taxpayer dollars to cover legal expenses for the men involved.

Through the end of last year, the Weare selectmen authorized just more than $8,000 in payments to attorneys representing officers present at the scene, according to the town’s check register. Invoices show that the money was distributed to five law firms and used for preliminary legal work – phone calls and meetings with the officers and the attorney general’s office, and visits to the site of the Aug. 14 incident.

While the state has yet to complete its inquiry into the shooting, which resulted in the death of a suspected drug dealer, prosecutors last week released the names of the officers involved. They include former sergeant Joseph Kelley, Sgt. Kenneth Cox, Detective Frank Hebert, Officer Nicholas Nadeau and Officer Brandon Montplaisir. All but Kelley, who was fired in November after three internal investigations apparently unrelated to the incident, remain actively employed by the department.

The client names have been redacted from all but two invoices submitted by the firms, which include the Law Office of Daniel Duckett; Green & Utter; Moir & Rabinowitz; Raimo & Murphy P.C.; and Bernstein, Mello & Chadwick P.L.L.C.

Invoices from Duckett and Green & Utter show work done for Montplaisir and Cox, respectively. Calls to Raimo & Murphy and Bernstein, Mello & Chadwick were not returned yesterday. Moir declined to say whether his firm was representing an officer.

Towns are often responsible for legal expenses when civil suits are brought against one or more of their employees. They rarely, if ever, do so in criminal cases, authorities said. But until and unless the state files criminal charges in the shooting, Weare officials appear to be acting within their legal authority.

State law allows governing bodies to protect staff from “any claim, demand, suit or judgment by reason of negligence or other act resulting in accidental injury” if the person was “acting in the scope of employment or office.”

“You need to support your employee, until proven otherwise,” Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard said. Should charges be brought against any of the men, he added, “that would be a different story.”

Tom Clow, chairman of Weare’s selectmen, said officials decided to support the officers at the suggestion of Arthur Walker, who was managing the police department at the time.

“When the incident occurred in August 2013, the town was involved in a search process for a new chief of police,” Clow said in a statement. “Our interim police manager suggested to the board of selectmen that, during the investigation of the incident, the town consider providing legal counsel for the officers involved. The board of selectmen agreed to do so.”

Walker, who has since been replaced by police Chief John Velleca, did not return a request for comment. Clow declined to say whether officials would continue footing expenses should the state move to prosecute any of the men.

The invoices were obtained by Tony Soltani, an Epsom attorney with ties to Weare. Soltani, who represents James Carney, the former Weare police lieutenant who resigned last year amid allegations of “inappropriate conduct,” said he was appalled by the board’s decision.

In an email last week to Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice, Soltani wrote, “It is incredible to me that a town, with taxpayer money, would provide legal representation for persons under criminal investigation.”

But Rice responded that the town did not appear to have overstepped any law.

“Unless there is a potential crime, which I am not seeing, this office has no authority to take any action,” she told Soltani in an email.

Assistant Attorney General Susan Morrell, who is overseeing the shooting investigation, declined to comment for this story.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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