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O'Brien's foundation discards Bettencourt



Last modified: Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Former House majority leader D.J. Bettencourt will not be the executive director of the New Hampshire Legal Rights Foundation, a non-profit co-founded by Speaker Bill O'Brien that severed ties with Bettencourt yesterday in light of news he faked a law school internship.

Bettencourt, a 28-year-old third-year student at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, announced Friday he would resign from the House next week. He cited his upcoming marriage and a new job, saying it is 'critical that I am able to focus my full attention' on taking over as the foundation's executive director and avoid 'the potential for conflict with my role as a member of the House.'

Bettencourt then resigned immediately on Sunday under pressure from Rep. Brandon Giuda, a Chichester Republican who accused Bettencourt of fabricating reports of an internship at Giuda's law office. Giuda said he had demanded Bettencourt step down citing 'personal problems.'

Yesterday, a release from the New Hampshire Legal Rights Foundation said the group 'has decided to cancel the contemplated relationship with former state Representative D.J. Bettencourt that had been under consideration for the past several months.'

'We don't know the full story yet,' said Tim Condon, chairman of the board of directors. 'However, it appears that the allegations are serious enough that we feel it's necessary to sever our emerging relationship with Mr. Bettencourt for the good of the organization.'

Free State Project links

O'Brien and Condon founded the Legal Rights Foundation in 2008 after the two attorneys teamed up in an attempt to stop the issuance of a bond to build what Condon called a 'Taj Mahal jail' in Grafton County. The pair argued that county officials had violated the state's right-to-know law but were unsuccessful in blocking the project.

Condon said yesterday the foundation was envisioned as an 'ACLU-like organization' that would protect civil rights and fight against government overreach. At the time, he said, O'Brien had lost his House seat in the prior election and 'wasn't even thinking about being in the State House much less being the speaker.'

Both Condon and board member Bob Hull previously held positions within the Free State Project, which seeks to recruit libertarians to move to New Hampshire, but Condon said they are no longer directly affiliated with the movement.

'I've kind of distanced myself from them,' Condon, a Grafton resident, said yesterday from Florida, where he operates his law practice. 'I agree with the concept of people who want to exercise their individual rights . . . but I don't approve of what the group has become.'

The foundation's first effort was a lawsuit on behalf of towns and individuals seeking immediate enforcement of a state constitutional amendment passed in 2006 that called for more New Hampshire towns with sufficient population to have their own representative. The lawsuit failed when the state Supreme Court ruled that the amendment would be implemented after the 2010 census.

Full circle

The House redistricting plan passed this year under O'Brien's leadership is now being challenged at the state Supreme Court by several parties who argue it unnecessarily denies towns and city wards their own representatives, thus failing to comply with the very constitutional amendment O'Brien pushed to implement. Condon says he see 'no irony there' because, he said, a plan put together by Demo-crats would have been similarly challenged along partisan lines.

Since losing its first case, the New Hampshire Legal Rights Foundation hasn't done much of anything.

'We kind of went into hibernation a little bit,' Condon said. 'More recently, we said 'We've got to get this thing straightened out, get this thing up and moving' and that's what we're doing.'

The four-member board met with Bettencourt throughout the spring to discuss his taking over as executive director, Condon said, but nothing was made official. O'Brien said yesterday 'we thought it might be an interesting project for him after he came out of law school.'

'I knew that D.J. was going to law school and about to graduate, and I knew he worked closely with O'Brien, so it seemed the logical thing to approach him,' Condon said. 'We were vetting him: What are your plans? What would you do with the organization? How would you raise funds?'

Condon said Bettencourt was put in charge of updating the website, to which Bettencourt added a page describing himself as the executive director who 'received his juris doctorate from the University of New Hampshire School of Law in 2012.' The website seeks member donations ranging from 'Chief Justice' level, $10,000, to 'law student' level, $100.

But a contract had yet to be signed, Condon said, and Bettencourt's position 'had never been formalized.' Though Bettencourt cited his role with the group as a reason for his departure from the House, O'Brien said 'the organization didn't really come up in any discussions we had over Friday, or anything like that.'

On Monday, the board convened a conference call with Bettencourt to inform him he would not become the board's executive director, Condon said. Bettencourt's page has been removed from the group's website, which Condon said was likely Bettencourt's doing.

Bettencourt 'was very excited about talking the position and we were far along in our discussions with him,' Condon said. 'Unfortunately, these things that have happened in the last few days have intervened.'

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