Capital Beat: Clampdown could be coming for free-for-all inaugural spending

  • N.H. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, left, raises his hand as he takes the oath of office from Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court Robert J. Lynn, right, during his inauguration ceremony at the State House in Concord, N.H., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Sununu begins his second, two-year term facing a Legislature controlled by Democrats. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Monitor staff
Published: 1/12/2019 9:05:45 PM

Attendees of Gov. Chris Sununu’s second inaugural ball at the mountainside Bretton Woods resort Saturday night had numerous ways to show their support with their wallets. They could have purchased $100 tickets for the meal, or bought out a table for $1,000.

Sununu’s inaugural ball a week earlier in Manchester, was twice as expensive.

Bigger benefactors at either event could show their generosity by forking over $10,000 for a 10-seat VIP table as a Golden Flake Sponsor, or go all in with a $25,000 deposit to earn their spot as an elite Diamond Dust sponsor.

Two years ago, Sununu raised nearly half-a-million dollars through his inaugural celebrations. The fundraising haul from the kickoff of his second term as governor won’t be revealed for several more weeks. But, in time, the public can see how much was raised, from whom, and eventually where funds were paid out. What the public won’t see is what, specifically, the money was used for.

Take for example Paul Collins, the treasurer of the inaugural committee, who received over $47,000 from the committee for unspecified “expenses” and food reimbursements since 2016. Collins was paid $106,826 in taxpayer funds in 2017 for his day-job as a senior advisor in the governor’s office.

Or Sununu’s sister Cathy Sununu, who chaired the inaugural committee. She received over $50,000 through her interior decorating company for decor, supplies, and other unspecified expenses.

Even Sununu himself personally received more than $39,000 in reimbursements from the inaugural fund, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office. The governor also used inaugural committee funds for a trip to Washington, D.C., the Monitor reported in 2017 in an article about limited regulation of inaugural funds.

State law sets strict contribution caps, spending guidelines and reporting requirements for political campaigns, but gives great leeway in inaugural funds. That means governors-elect have little restriction on how much they can raise from lobbyists or corporations and few regulations limiting how they can spend the money.

This year, one lawmaker is seeking to strengthen those laws. Legislation filed by Sen. Dan Feltes would impose a $10,000 total cap on donations to inaugural committees, limiting some of the influence of corporations. More directly, the bill would require all expenditures to the governor-elect “or his or her immediate family” to include back-up receipts that detailed every transaction.

And perhaps most significantly – or onerously, depending on your perspective – Feltes’s bill would require the inaugural committee to disclose any expenditure above $1,000 within 48 hours of it being made. That would allow major expenses to be observed by the press and public closer to real time rather than months after the fact.

“The goal here is to enhance transparency and public confidence in how these inaugural committees operate, what they disclose, and eliminate possible perceptions, whether real or not, about possible self dealing,” Feltes said.

All this started to boil over a few weeks ago, after the Union Leader reported on the thin reporting requirements that apply to governors’ inaugural committees in New Hampshire.

For his part, Sununu has said he has no intention of releasing any more information than is required by law. That minimum level of transparency is a practice that cuts across party lines; Sununu’s predecessor, Gov. Maggie Hassan, who wasn’t required to disclose her expenditures and released even less information than Sununu did. By contrast, fellow Democratic Gov. John Lynch also wasn’t required to do so, but reported his expenditures voluntarily.

The significance of inaugural funds and how they are used depends on who you ask. Collins has said the reimbursements are above board and in line with the new law passed in 2016, directly related to gubernatorial duties, and a prudent approach to saving taxpayer money. The funds have also been used to pay for charitable events such as the lighting of the state Christmas tree and Easter egg hunts, supporters of Sununu point out.

But Democrats and others argue the public is entitled to a detailed breakdown of how the money has been spent – particularly given the murkiness – and are requesting the governor’s office to volunteer the information.

For now, Sununu’s office has declined to honor a Democratic right-to-know request for further information on the spending, citing security concerns with revealing the governor’s past travel habits and using the non-profit status of the Sununu Inaugural Celebration Inc. to evade further scrutiny.

That impasse leaves us with plenty of bombast but few answers. The first reporting date for the 2018 inaugural committee – including the first glimpses of donations amassed and spent – is not until March 10, about eight weeks away.

In interviews, Sununu has maintained that the funds were spent and documented appropriately, and has argued that while required by law now, his disclosures surpass Hassan’s.

And recent history bears repeating. Despite a precedent set by Lynch, in which the Democrat disclosed all inaugural committee spending, Hassan broke from that precedent; her inaugural committee did not release any of its expenditures and reimbursements, only making public a donor list that revealed that Eversource Energy, and the law firm Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell each contributed $25,000 to the inaugural fund.

The free-for-all nature of inaugural funds, where newly-elected and re-elected governors could collect large sums of money without any real constraints on how to spend it, ended under Hassan, when Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley led an effort to put the current reporting requirement on the books.

Now, Sununu says he is complying in good faith.

“We follow the letter of the law to a T, without a doubt,” Sununu told New Hampshire Public Radio last month. “If the legislature wants to change the law, and require more disclosure, that’s fine, we’ll follow the letter of the law however they want to do it.”

So how about that future strengthening? The 2016 law passed easily, sailing through with voice votes in both chambers. Today, political conditions are reversed: a Republican governor in his second term, facing down a Democratic Legislature.

But there may yet be room for bipartisanship. Speaking in April 2017, after Sununu’s first inauguration. Bradley hinted he could support further transparency laws governing the specific expenditures.

“There probably should be more formal requirements with regards to what can happen with it,” Bradley told the Monitor then. He was unavailable to comment Friday.

Feltes said he was hopeful to work with Republicans to strengthen the law.

“There’s been plenty of conversations and continued conversations, and I look forward to working in a bipartisan way to continue encouraging disclosures,” he said.

Data deluge

With fanfare, Gov. Sununu unveiled a collaboration between New Hampshire, a Massachusetts research firm, and the federal government Thursday. The goal: to create a commission to analyze opioid prescription practices in the Granite State by using insurance claims data.

But it’s only the latest in a growing number of databases being set up in New Hampshire to address prescribing and health care usage across the state. And all of them are at various levels of incomplete.

To review: There’s the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, created in 2012 to allow doctors and pharmacists to spot “doctor shoppers” – patients that go to multiple pharmacists or doctors to increase their ability to get prescription drugs. Prescribing data for that is meant to be analyzed and compiled into reports to set future legislation.

There’s the Comprehensive Health Care Information System: the vast data set of insurance claims data already available to insurers, providers, and state agencies, and the same data set to be used in the newly announced collaboration with the Mitre Corporation.

And as of the New Year, there is a new set of data collection requirements accompanying the state’s hub and spoke opioid treatment program. That database – created under the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 – will collect information on users of hub and spoke and be shared with a federal agency as a condition for receiving federal funding.

Each database uses different metrics to assess what’s working and not working within the system, Sununu and others said Thursday. But with scant reports produced – even from the 6-year PDMP, which has suffered funding deficiencies – it remains to be seen how exactly this shapes future policy.

“This data will allow us to not just make policy on a hunch,” Sununu said. “...True predictive analytics – the whole idea is to become preventative. To identify the problem before it becomes a crisis. ...Being now predictive about what those patterns have led to. Where some of the red flags maybe that we should have seen before, well now we’ll be able to see them.”

Tweaks to the program

They were hardly as eye-catching as the move to ban guns from the House chamber, but the newly-Democratic House passed a series of rules last week to change the way committees are operated. Now, one week into committee hearings, those rules are taking effect.

One change prevents committees from holding executive sessions on bills directly after hearings – a practice that critics say can allow lawmakers to rush through votes without proper deliberation. The second ensures that members of the public and lawmakers must be heard before lobbyists or advocacy group representatives.

Already, the changes are notable. At a hearing Thursday on House Bill 106, which would repeal a hot-button “voter residency bill” passed last year that Democrats say will suppress student votes, students and members of the public took to the microphone early on.

Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan, whose office oversees the law and who came in support of it, waited until the end.




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