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Rep sees politics in House seats

Last modified: 4/3/2012 12:00:00 AM
State Rep. Tony Soltani is threatening legal action because he says House Speaker Bill O'Brien has refused to accommodate his disabilities in his seating assignment as part of an ongoing political dispute.

"Since my election, and throughout my ordeal, I have been mistreated by the House leadership," Soltani, an Epsom Republican, said in a letter last week to Greg Moore, O'Brien's policy director. "I have been accorded no accommodation whatsoever. I am the only member with a documented disability in at least thirty years who has been so shabbily treated."

Moore declined yesterday to discuss Soltani's letter, calling it a "personnel matter."

"We do not discuss personnel matters involving any representative or any member of House staff," Moore said in an email.

Between a bad fall in 2007 and a single-car accident last year, Soltani has sustained a broken pelvis and nerve damage to his left leg and thigh. He has only recently begun trying to walk without a cane, he said.

O'Brien assigned Soltani an inner seat in the last row. Soltani said his "left leg can not negotiate the obstacles between the seats, and my repeated falls and bruises are a mere gift from your offices."

"It is no secret that I have suffered from several disabilities, which have caused me great pain, discomfort and sometimes rendered me unable to perform my duties as I see them fit," Soltani said. "My limp and inability to walk quickly exclude me from participating in the parliamentary process."

Soltani said 11 House members, including Republicans and Democrats, have offered to switch seats with him but those requests have been denied by O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican of whom Soltani has been openly critical.

"I trust my friends who have told me the speaker wants to see me suffer for political reasons. I readily admit that I seldom agree with the speaker, and his tactics," Soltani said. "Political disagreement is no excuse for breaking the law."

Soltani is requesting "appropriate accommodations due me under federal and state laws."

"These accommodations could range from a milk carton for me to sit on, to an aisle seat," he said.

If he doesn't hear back from O'Brien's office by Thursday, Soltani plans to file a complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in Boston.

Joni Esperian, executive director of the state human rights commission, said her office doesn't have jurisdiction over disability accommodations on municipal or state-owned property, such as Representatives Hall. As an elected House member, Soltani also may not qualify as an employee seeking protection from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she said.

Soltani is not concerned that the agencies might reject his complaints. If that happens, he said, he'll file a lawsuit in Merrimack County Superior Court.

"I need the declination before I could go to the court," Soltani said.

Soltani said his letter was not just on his behalf, but also as a request of accommodation for freshman Rep. Tim Copeland, a pro-labor Republican from Strafford who opposed the O'Brien-backed right-to-work bill. Copeland had been initially assigned an aisle seat, but it was revoked "as a result of his votes and refusal to carry water for Speaker O'Brien," Soltani said.

"Such action is unprecedented," Soltani said. "Representative Copeland did not miraculously get cured. He was removed for his political beliefs to which he is entitled."

Copeland said he filled out a medical card upon taking office that requested an aisle seat because of his bad back and knees, which make it hard to stand or sit for long periods of time. Copeland had the seat for about a year, during which time he resigned his post as a committee whip in protest of O'Brien's agenda. When Rep. Lynne Blankenbeker of Concord returned from her deployment to Afghanistan, O'Brien gave her Copeland's seat. Blankenbeker is vice chairwoman of the State-Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs Committee.

"Next thing I know I get a letter one day that said my seat assignment's been changed. . . . No other explanation," Copeland said. "It was just a form of retaliation from him."

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


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