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O'Brien to House: No mean emails

Last modified: 6/13/2012 12:00:00 AM
House Speaker Bill O'Brien has warned all House members they will lose access to the legislative computer system if they continue to use their private or state-issued email addresses to send derogatory or unprofessional communications.

Some representatives' 'repeated violations of this policy and, indeed any generally accepted traditions of conducting civil communications, have been discouraging and embarrassing to their House colleagues,' O'Brien wrote in an email to House members Monday evening. 'This misuse of the legislative system must, and will, come to an end.'

O'Brien did not cite specific examples of alleged policy violations, and a House spokeswoman said by email only that O'Brien has received 'a number of complaints' from House members about emails containing vulgarities and personal insults to other members.

But twice in the past month, the Monitor has reported on email exchanges between House members that have, at times, been personal and fiery.

After former majority leader D.J. Bettencourt resigned in May after fabricating a law school internship, one House member called Bettencourt a 'liar and a fraud' in a widely circulated email, and another said voters deserved more 'integrity, honesty and ethics' from their elected leaders.

And Sunday, the Monitor reported on angry email exchanges between Republicans after new Majority Leader Peter Silva of Nashua said in a television interview that members of his own party caused the defeat of a constitutional amendment on education funding. In the interview, Silva questioned the bona fides of Republicans who voted against the amendment.

Upset that Silva had criticized other Republicans on the air, Rep. Jon Richardson, an Allenstown Republican, told Silva in an email sent to the entire caucus that he was a 'bloviating buffoon.' In the email chain that followed, other Republicans found their own GOP credentials questioned.

At one point, O'Brien weighed in by email to call for unity among the party.

Under the 'zero tolerance' policy O'Brien sent out Monday, 'derogatory' and 'defamatory' remarks will be prohibited, O'Brien said. And while the email use policy has long been in place for state employees who use state email addresses and state computers, O'Brien said he believes it applies to elected officials as well.

Anyone who violates the policy using a state-issued email will lose their legislative email privilege immediately, O'Brien wrote. If a House member uses a private email address to send communications deemed inappropriate, he or she will immediately lose access to the legislative computer system, which representatives rely on to keep in touch and up to date on legislative matters.

Shannon Bettencourt, the House spokeswoman and now wife of D.J. Bettencourt, said new House members were made aware of the email policy during their orientation last year. House members reached yesterday said this was the first they'd ever heard about the policy.

The written policy includes a place for state employees to add their signature. But lawmakers were not asked to sign it unless they requested to use a state-owned laptop for the legislative session. And few made that request.

O'Brien did not say in his email who will decide what content violates the policy. He said anyone who is stripped of their legislative email access for violating the policy can appeal the termination to the legislative facilities committee. O'Brien is the chairman of that committee.

Rep. Rick Watrous, a Concord Democrat, asked O'Brien and his chief of staff, Greg Moore, via email who would judge the content of emails. Watrous asked if certain emails from Republicans criticizing President Obama would violate the policy.

Watrous said he did not get an answer.

One of those anti-Obama emails circulated Monday.

Rep. Joe Pitre, a Farmington Republican, sent around an email that included a picture of President Obama and Michelle Obama holding hands. The president is dressed in a neon green suit with a red hat cocked sideways, evoking a pimp or flashy nightclub owner, and a gold chain around his neck displays a dollar sign. The first lady is wearing a bikini top, exposing cleavage and a bare midriff.

'Remember the couple who sneaked into the White House with no credentials,' Pitre's email read. 'Well, they're still there.'

Pitre, a freshman lawmaker, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

'The big question is, 'Who decides what is derogatory or not,' ' Watrous said. 'And this (demand for civility) is from a speaker who found nothing wrong with Rep. (Paul) Mirksi referring to state Supreme Court justices as unethical on the House floor last week. And (O'Brien) let that stand even after being challenged.'

Mirski, an Enfield Center Republican, made the comment while testifying in favor of the constitutional amendment on education funding. Mirksi said the court should not be deciding how the state pays for education because the justices are 'unethical.'

Rep. Tony Soltani, an Epsom Republican who is not seeking re-election, shared his response with the full House.

'Lord almighty,' Soltani wrote. 'When was this edict issued and by whom? We are not employees but officials. I guess free speech has given way to one man's version of politically correct speech.'

And O'Brien responded to the full House: 'For those of you who might find personal or partisan currency in treating this policy as recently contrived or somehow evidence of newly minted evil, you should be aware that every word of it predates this term and that it was in effect before December 2010.'

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican who hasn't hidden his distaste for the speaker, said yesterday he suspects O'Brien was targeting him with the email policy. Vaillancourt routinely calls one House Republican member 'his vileness' in email communications, and was quoted in Sunday's Monitor calling another Republican representative a 'f------ idiot' in an email.

Vaillancourt did not share that email with the entire Republican caucus, but the recipient did.

Asked for his thoughts on O'Brien's email admonishment, Vaillancourt cited his days living in Germany in 1992 when, he said, there were virtually no telephones in the former East Berlin. Instead, there were chalkboards outside houses where people could leave public, not private, messages for one another.

'The moral of our fable is that totalitarian governments fear a free exchange of ideas; always have, always will,' Vaillancourt said, via email. 'This is yet further proof that Bill O'Brien aspires to be an absolute dictator, totalitarian, or fascist, you choose the description. I am beyond being shocked at anything he does, but this is clearly another step down the road to fascism. Dare I repeat, Sieg Heil?'

Vaillancourt used that expression on the House floor earlier this year while protesting a ruling by O'Brien, and O'Brien forced him to apologize to the House.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)


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