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Status of Sununu Complaint Unclear After Ethics Committee's Initial Review

Casey McDermott, NHPR
The executive branch ethics committee met Monday at the Manchester law offices of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green. John Formella, legal counsel for the governor, was present at the meeting.

New Hampshire’s executive branch ethics committee met Monday morning to review a complaint involving Gov. Chris Sununu – but the details of its discussion and what, if any, action it might take on the complaint are still confidential.

This was the first time the ethics committee met since the New Hampshire Democratic Party filed a formal complaint accusing the governor of using his official state Twitter account to promote his family’s ski resort, Waterville Valley. The committee only meets monthly when there are new complaints to review; its last meeting was November 2016.

At least at the outset, the executive branch ethics committee reviews all complaints in nonpublic session, and much of its decision-making processes are kept confidential until the committee decides a complaint merits a formal hearing. On Monday, the committee spent only a few minutes in public session – approving old meeting minutes – before recessing to nonpublic session for more than an hour.

Sununu’s legal counsel, John Formella, was present at the ethics committee meeting and left about halfway through the nonpublic session. Formella confirmed he was there to respond to a complaint involving the governor, but neither he nor those involved in the committee could elaborate on details of the discussion.

No one representing the New Hampshire Democratic Party attended the meeting, and NHDP spokesman Wyatt Ronan said the party was aware the committee was meeting but did not attend because they “didn’t want to interfere in the process at all.” Ronan said the party had not yet been notified of the committee’s decision on whether to pursue their complaint.

Under the state law that set up the executive branch executive ethics committee, most – though not all – of its business happens behind closed doors. The committee must release its records regarding a complaint to the public once it finishes a preliminary investigation or formal hearing, if a complaint makes it to either of those stages in the review process.

The executive branch ethics committee debuted in 2006 under then-newly elected Gov. John Lynch, who made ethics reform a cornerstone issue of his gubernatorial campaign.

Those involved with the ethics committee have told NHPR they cannot recall a time in its decade-long existence when the panel has decided to investigate and pursue a formal hearing on any complaint that’s been filed against a New Hampshire public official.

Four members of the seven-member committee were present at Monday's meeting, but the three remaining seats are vacant. One of those vacant seats belonged to former executive councilor Jim Normand, who just resigned from the committee after announcing plans to run for state Senate in District 16.