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Sununu's Inaugural Funds Went Toward Family, Travel, And Arm Wrestling Champ

Sam Evans-Brown for NHPR
Governor Chris Sununu and his wife, Valerie Sununu, celebrate his win on election night

As Governor Chris Sununu prepares to be inaugurated for his second term, the committee that organizes his inaugural activities is getting some attention.

Over the weekend the NH Union Leader reported that the committee has paid out thousands of dollars to members of the Governor’s inner circle, including his sister, father and wife.

Joining me now to to discuss the story is NHPR’s Josh Rogers. 

Listen to the interview:

Read the interview (lightly edited for clarity):

Let’s start with the what the Union Leader, specifically reporter Todd Feathers, reported yesterday? What was the bottom line?

Well that since its formation two years ago, the Sununu Inaguration committee has raised about $450,000, much of it from businesses and lobbyists. And that people affiliated with the committee, including family members and close political allies of the Governor, have been paid about $165,000 from the fund. The Governor’s sister, Cathy Sununu – received about $50,000 from the committee, most of it to plan the inauguration; Paul Collins, who is a senior adviser in the Governor’s office and who is the treasurer of the Sununu Inaugural Celebration, Inc. (that’s the committee’s formal name) received close to $48,000.

Most of that money is for what the spending reports describe as inaugural fundraising/consulting. Other big earners from the committee include Jamie Burnett, a lobbyist who headed the Governor’s transition team and who used to be in business with the Governor’s brothers, and who Sununu has since made a trustee to UNH.

So some chunks of money were paid out to people close to the Governor.

Yes. And also money to the Governor himself, almost $40,000, apparently for expenses and travel.

First lady Valerie Sununu was paid $1000 as a reimbursement for expenses incurred for the state Easter egg hunt. And the governor’s dad, former governor John H. Sununu, also got a $1000 reimbursement for renting a van or vans and gassing them up.

Now the Governor’s office says such spending is all justifiably as being related to his inauguration?

Yes, or to pay for things related to operating the Governor’s office. And talking to people who have been involved in past inaugural committees, and from my own reporting experience, much of what is in these filings is unsurprising in substance.

The particulars, though, that so much money is going to family and or people with close political ties is conspicuous, but that was apparently how the governor’s committee chose to do it.

So you are saying this is normal?

Not all of it, but inaugural committees are - have - been a bit elastic in New Hampshire, under New Hampshire law and by past practice. And first off, the only reason we are even getting to look at these reports is that the lawmakers moved to tighten standards a few years ago to require reporting. So, what we are seeing from Governor Sununu is as complete a report as we’ve seen from any Governor. So there is that.

Another thing worth bearing in mind is that a lot of what we see in these reports, the incidental spending, is fairly consistent with inaugural committee spending by other governors. Governor Maggie Hassan’s committee, for instance, which chose not to file inaugural committee reports – her predecessor John Lynch’s had, voluntarily – said it used the money for things like entertaining state employees, the Christmas Tree lighting at the official Governor’s residence, and for some travel. And since she never filed reports, and the law didn’t require it, we don’t know exactly how the money was spent, though when she left office there was cash left over.

But even with the new standard, what you don’t get - much detail on how a committee spends and how the money gets used - appears to remain a bit ad hoc.

Today, for instance, the Governor took one of his sons to the White House Holiday party. According to the Governor’s office, inaugural funds will pay for the Governor’s plane ticket. His son’s, I was told, will come out of the Governor’s pocket.

Last year, the Governor used inaugural funds to pay for another DC trip to attend the gala of a pro-Lebanon advocacy group. But without receipts and records, which aren’t not required, it’s hard to know how this money is spent with much precision.

This money can also be used for charity, correct?

The Governor has used money for his inaugural fund to benefit Bedrock Gardens in Lee, the Make a Wish Foundation, and the Seacoast Science Center, among other non-profits. The committee has sent money, $1000, to a parochial school, Sacred Heart, in Hampton.

I asked the Governor’s office if it was a school any of the Governor’s children had attended the school, and they declined to answer the question. They also told me the Governor is receiving no tax benefit from any donations.

I asked about this because some the inaugural committee donations appear to be memorialized by beneficiaries as as coming directly from him, and not the inaugural committee.

Anything else leap out at you?

Well, you may recall the Governor is a fan of arm wrestling, and of Sunapee arm wrestling champion Cathy Merrill, particularly. Well, the Sununu inaugural committee has given her $2500. $500 directly, and another $2000, to BFE 603, an entity she controls. A spokesman for the Governor’s office says the Inaugural Committee was pleased to support a world champion. And, you know, to the incorporating language for the inaugural committee said, the committee will be “contributing to the good of New Hampshire.” I think they would say this donation does that. 

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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