Capital Beat: Inaugural funds face limited regulation

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 4/15/2017 11:15:01 PM

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu raised almost half-a-million dollars to fund his inauguration celebrations, bringing in hefty $25,000 checks from Eversource Energy, health care corporation Centene and Concord law firm Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell, records show.

Two months after Sununu’s final inaugural gala ended, more than $240,000 remained in the fund, according to filings. And in March, Sununu tapped the money to cover a trip to Washington D.C., where he attended a pro-Lebanon advocacy group’s gala.

While state law sets stringent contribution caps and spending guidelines for election campaigns, the statute is surprisingly silent on inaugural funds. It 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.

“There probably should be more formal requirements with regards to what can happen with it,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican.

A bill Bradley sponsored last session set up some of the first requirements for inaugural money, “to at least get a foot in the door about some transparency,” he said. As a result, Sununu is the first governor who has had to publicly report spending and fundraising related to his inaugural committee.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan wasn’t bound by that requirement. The former governor hosted her last inaugural gala more than two years ago, but in March her fund still had a balance of roughly $20,000, according to the now U.S. Senator’s spokesman Aaron Jacobs. The money will be donated to charity, he said. It’s not clear why the funds weren’t spent or given away sooner.

Since Hassan did not have to file reports disclosing her inaugural activity, there are no public records detailing exactly how the former governor spent her leftover money.

Jacobs said the Governor Maggie Hassan Inaugural Committee supported things such as the “State Employees Holiday Tea, the annual Bridges House Christmas Tree Lighting, Easter Egg Hunt, and refreshments for meetings with legislative leadership.”

Both Hassan and Sununu formed organizations to run their inaugural celebrations with bylaws that outline how the money can be spent. The self-imposed limits are vague and can include almost anything.

Hassan’s committee was established to support inaugural activities, but also “to support official functions of the Governor’s Office not funded otherwise,” according to the formation filing.

The Sununu Inaugural Celebration Inc. allows spending on inaugural activities and also “other activities which contribute to the good of the State of New Hampshire,” according to the business filing. The fund is controlled by a board of directors, which includes Sununu’s sister and several members of his administration. Sununu’s spokesman Dave Abrams said the money “contributed to and will continue to contribute to travel and events held by the Governor’s Office, as has been tradition through past administrations.”

Whether the trip to Washington D.C. was for the good of the state is up to interpretation. In addition to attending a gala for the American Task Force for Lebanon, Sununu met with Hassan.

Sununu called his attendence at the gala “very non-political and non-governmental,” in an interview on New Hampshire Public Radio.

“It truly was non-political. I didn’t speak, nothing like that, it was just good to see some old friends and be part of a group that I think does some great work,” he said. As for the meeting with his predecessor, he asked Hassan for some advice, he told Laura Knoy on The Exchange.

“Everything in terms of approach, to commissioners, what she sees the priorities are,” he said, describing the conversation with Hassan. “We don’t agree on much politically, but we do agree on some things.”

What to watch

A hearing on the latest casino bill is scheduled for Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the House Ways and Means committee. Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro’s latest gambling bill would allow two casinos and has already passed the state Senate.

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