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Questions still linger in case of NH lawmaker who resigned after moving out of district

Seats in the New Hampshire House of Representatives
Dan Tuohy
The 400-member House chamber in the New Hampshire State House.

With the partisan divide in the 400-member New Hampshire House close to dead even, every seat is pivotal. That reality is adding to the intrigue surrounding the resignation of former Lancaster Rep. Troy Merner.

Merner, a Republican, stepped down from the House in September. That followed the finding of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office that Merner had been living outside his district for more than a year. The attorney general says the matter remains under criminal investigation, but there are outstanding questions about who knew what and when. NHPR’s Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers joined NHPR’s All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa to talk about what’s currently known about Merner’s situation.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Rep. Troy Merner represented the town of Lancaster until September but hadn't been living there since August of 2022 — a whole year earlier. What were the circumstances?

According to the attorney general, Troy Merner sold the house where he was living in Lancaster on Aug. 26, 2022. He then moved to Twin Mountain. Merner apparently did store some belongings in the house that he had lived in in Lancaster, and did keep office space in the town. But as of the date of the sale of that house, according to the attorney general, Merner ceased to be domiciled in his legislative district and thus couldn't legally hold the seat in the House of Representatives he was occupying.

But he was carrying on as far as his political life goes, as if he was still living in Lancaster?

Yes. Merner voted in Lancaster. He was on the ballot there in the fall of 2022 elections, and he voted there again in March 2023 during town elections. And that's when a local election worker raised a question about the propriety of his voting there and basically doubted that he was living where he said he was. According to the attorney general, Merner claimed he had leased the house he'd sold back from its new owner and was living there every time he voted in Lancaster. He made a similar claim to NHPR in September when he ultimately resigned.

To put this in context, Josh, how rare is this kind of circumstance in the New Hampshire House?

Well, a state representative resigning due to moving out of [the] district — that's not at all uncommon. It's a citizen legislature. These sorts of things happen. A representative being criminally investigated by the attorney general for serving more than a year after living outside of his home district — that's not common. Never happened since I've been covering the Legislature for more than two decades.

So what's the upshot? Beyond possible criminal charges against Merner, House Speaker Sherman Packard has said once he learned of Merner’s situation, he called for his resignation, right?

That's what Speaker Packard says. But that's not the end of this. Plenty of people around Concord, and Democrats in particular, are questioning the timeline of this whole thing. You remember the attorney general was notified about Troy Merner in March, when that local poll worker raised questions, but only took actions that prompted Merner's exit from the Legislature in September, six months later.

Six months seems like a long time to verify somebody's residency status. So there's that. And there's also the fact that during that six-month period, Troy Merner voted unconstitutionally, per the attorney general's findings, on lots of bills. And in some circumstances, Merner’s vote was pivotal: there were some tie votes this year and one-vote margins in the House. And so there's that. Another thing is the question of whether Merner’s situation was really something that nobody serving with him in Concord knew about.

Is there evidence to suggest that it was actually more widely known?

Well, the New Hampshire House [has] 400 members. It can be a pretty social place – there's no shortage of busybodies. So on its face, the idea that a representative could serve that long living outside of his district without anybody knowing, maybe that could happen. And there is one lawmaker, Democrat Kat McGhee of Hollis, who served with Merner in the House. She's told Indepth NH that Merner had told her that House leaders did know he no longer lived in his district, but wanted him to keep serving. That account has been called “shocking and unrealistic” by House Deputy Speaker Steve Smith.

So the deputy House speaker is calling those claims into doubt. But he didn't deny them absolutely?

No. And he indicated that he didn't know, which may be true. But we could soon know more about this whole thing, about the timing of the investigation and who may have known what and when. Peter Burling, a former Democratic lawmaker, and Mark Hounsell, a former Republican lawmaker, have filed right-to-know requests seeking details of the attorney general's communications with House leaders and House staffers reaching back to March 2, 2023 — that's when the complaint came in — through Sept. 18 — that's when the attorney general formally made his statements in a memo to Speaker Packard that prompted Troy Merner to resign. The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office has so far rebuffed those right-to-know requests. But if that doesn't change, a lawsuit to disgorge more information is likely.

And all the while, the House remains very closely divided. What's the current House partisan divide?

Right now, there are 198 Republican members, 195 Democrats, three independents and four vacancies, including the seat that Troy Merner had occupied. Most, if not all, of those vacancies are likely to get filled with special elections taking place later this winter. But the margins are going to be tight regardless of what happens in any of those.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.

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