Delaney claims House overstep

Last modified: 4/10/2012 12:00:00 AM
The House Redress of Grievances Committee has shown a bias against state workers that could threaten the safety of at-risk children, New Hampshire Attorney General Michael Delaney said yesterday, outlining his concerns in a letter to Speaker Bill O'Brien that marks the latest high-profile disagreement between Delaney and the House's Republican leadership.

"I believe the one-sided hearings by the Redress of Grievance Committee are having a chilling effect on those who perform an essential function of state government - protecting children from abuse and neglect," Delaney wrote.

Delaney highlighted a series of questions posed to the state's Division for Children, Youth and Families by members of the legislative committee, which O'Brien resurrected last year to hear complaints from New Hampshire citizens. The questions "would lead any neutral observer to conclude that the committee is motivated by an agenda that does not include a search for the truth," Delaney said.

"Under what DCYF policy does it state slandering parents and family members is allowed in order to place a child in foster care?" was one question. Another asked, "Under what DCYF policy does it state the assessment worker has the right to falsely state in her affidavit that the mother's labor was induced due to complications, when it wasn't induced?"

Obviously, no such policies exist, Delaney said. His office has advised DCYF not to answer the questions.

"Clearly, the committee is not asking these questions to inform public hearings, but rather, to harass, or perhaps intimidate, DCYF," Delaney wrote.

Delaney said O'Brien asked his office at the beginning of the 2011-2012 legislative session to attend and evaluate the committee hearings, and raise any concerns he might have. In the committee's first year of operation, the 27 grievances filed by New Hampshire citizens "have, in large part, been directed against employees of DCYF and individual judges involved in matters involving child safety or child support."

Through the petitions, Delaney said, the committee "is targeting those who are simply performing their jobs" in accordance with state law.

"They seek to remove judges, award damages and return children to placements our courts have already deemed are inappropriate," Delaney said.

"Affording petitioners another forum to re-litigate these cases simply extends the time during which the childrens' lives are in a state of instability, to their detriment. And by creating an atmosphere of fear and persecution, the committee's activities will adversely affect the performance of public officials who are charged with protecting those children."

O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican, responded to Delaney's criticism in a statement, saying "the New Hampshire Constitution clearly lays out that the citizens shall have the right to petition the Legislature for redress of grievances."

"The attorney general's desire to deny our residents this constitutional right is baffling and inconsistent with accountable government," O'Brien said. "We certainly did ask that the Department of Justice provide meaningful feedback to improve the process so that our residents could get an open airing of their concerns, but instead we received an attack on allowing New Hampshire citizens a chance to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, this is just one more example of an attorney general more interested in playing politics than administering justice."

A citizen's only requirement before filing a petition is to find a legislator to sponsor it, Delaney said. Unlike normal adjudicative proceedings, the committee hearings lack constitutional safeguards to ensure the relevant laws and facts are fully vetted, he said.

"Judges hear from a variety of witnesses in these matters, including both parents and/or guardians of at-risk children, medical professionals, therapists, educators and other professionals. The judge makes a decision based on all of the evidence," Delaney wrote. "None of these basic elements of a fair proceeding are evident in the committee's hearings. Mere accusation is treated as truth."

Delaney said he has additional concerns about rules recently adopted by the House to allow subpoenas that would compel people to testify or produce records before the committee.

"Child protection matters are subject to strict confidentiality requirements," Delaney wrote. "State officials will be placed in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to honor a legislative subpoena or adhere to the laws of confidentiality."

House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, a Salem Republican, said in a statement that Delaney has "no interest in fostering government transparency." Bettencourt said Delaney prefers "to hide behind his cloak of darkness," in reference to the state's past investigation of the Ponzi scheme run by Financial Resources Mortgage of Meredith.

"If the House Redress of Grievance Committee had been in place during the FRM scandal the victims would have been able to file a grievance on how the attorney general's office was handling the case and would have been provided more oversight and protection," Bettencourt said. "Delaney has again demonstrated he's more interested in playing politics than running an open and accountable operation."

Relations between the attorney general's office and House Republicans have been strained since early last year, when Delaney spoke out against a bill that sought to force him to join a lawsuit opposing the Obama administration's federal health care overhaul. Delaney said the bill was encroachment by the Legislature on the executive branch.

In November, Delaney wrote O'Brien requesting a law enforcement investigation of an incident last year in which House Republicans displayed "unruly and aggressive" behavior following a decision by the state ballot law commission to allow President Obama on the Democratic primary ballot. One legislator told the commission members they "better wear a mask" to face his constituents and Assistant Attorney General Matt Mavrogeorge, who was representing the state at the hearing, said he feared for his safety.

O'Brien requested the investigation and ran the results by House counsel Ed Mosca, who determined the House Republicans involved committed no legal or ethical wrongdoing. O'Brien then sent Delaney a letter last month that accused him of dealing with the Legislature in a "roughshod manner" and requested a meeting "so that we can identify ways in which we can work to rebuild both your and the Department of Justice's reputation with the House."

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)




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