Ethics Committee Delivers Warning to Top N.H. Dem for Violating Conflict of Interest Rules

Nov 8, 2019

A State House ethics panel says a top House Democrat violated ethics guidelines by testifying and voting on several pieces of legislation that directly intersected with his position as the paid president of a statewide teachers union. 

But, in a ruling released on Friday, the committee declined to issue any formal punishment against House Majority Leader Doug Ley. Instead, the committee instructed Ley to recuse himself from future votes that “may have a direct benefit” to his employer, the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

In an interview Friday, Ley, who has represented Jaffrey in the Legislature since 2012, said he planned to take the committee’s advice.

“I believed at the time I handled them in a correct manner,” Ley said of the votes at issue in the ethics committee’s ruling. “The committee now has suggested, they would state, that I should have done things somewhat differently. I accept that.”

(Related: Top N.H. Lawmaker Says No Lobbying Involved In His Union Job, But His Predecessor Was A Lobbyist)

Ley has been the president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers since July 2016. While his predecessor registered as a lobbyist, Ley did not. He told NHPR earlier this year that he would not shy from taking a position on legislation that was not aligned with the union’s interest. 

Registered lobbyist or not, Ley testified on his union’s behalf during legislative hearings and voted on bills that the union explicitly endorsed or opposed. He also occasionally authored the union’s “legislative bulletins,” which encouraged members to contact their representatives — Ley’s colleagues at the State House — to ask them to vote for AFT-NH’s favored positions.

The Legislative Ethics Committee began reviewing a complaint about Ley’s overlapping roles as a labor leader and legislator in May. The complainant, Christopher Mazarell, lost a bid for Ley’s legislative seat in 2018, and said he viewed Ley’s involvement in the teachers union as a “pretty hefty conflict of interest,” given the extent to which members of the legislature can influence education policy.

“If this was somebody who represented a more corporate conflict of interest, I think it would be more apparent to people,” Mazerall told NHPR in May. NHPR has reached out to Mazerall for comment on the ethics committee’s decision but has not yet heard back.

Over the past five months, the ethics committee met several times — behind closed doors — to review the allegations against Ley and determine what action to take. At its most recent meeting, on Oct. 18, Ethics Committee Chairman Ned Gordon, a state representative and former judge from Bristol, said a decision on the complaint had not been finalized. But in a letter published in the latest House calendar, the committee said it voted that same day to adopt an “informal resolution” on the matter.

In that resolution, the ethics committee said Ley should have recused himself at least three times during the 2018 legislative session: on votes related to union membership, union dues and school personnel benefits. In each of those cases, the ethics committee determined that the legislation at hand would have had a “direct effect” on AFT-NH or its members. 

The ethics committee dismissed one additional allegation regarding Ley’s participation on a bill dealing with education savings accounts because, they said, it was not clear that “the union [would] receive any direct benefit.”

“Certainly, paid lobbyists serving as legislators should not participate in matters favoring their clients or employers,” the ethics committee wrote. “Accordingly, we should not allow a compensated employee who is paid to advocate for his or her employer to participate in matters directly related to his or her employer.”

While the ethics committee was clear in its view that Ley broke State House ethics rules, they ultimately erred on the side of leniency — acknowledging that the ethics guidelines could be more specific and accepting Ley’s “representation that [he] did not intentionally violate any principle or rule.”

“The Committee recognizes that the Ethics Guidelines are not always easily understood and are subject to interpretation,” the committee wrote. “There is no bright line set out in the Ethics Guidelines establishing when recusal is required. Perhaps that is a matter for the Legislature to address in the future.” (Many members of the ethics committee are themselves current or former members of the Legislature.)

On Friday, Ley told NHPR he respected the ethics committee’s decision and will ask for clarification if he’s unsure how to handle future situations that might require recusal. 

“I’m ready to go forward and accept what ethics committee had determined,” Ley said. “If I have questions I will seek guidance.”

Ley’s Republican counterpart, House Minority Leader Dick Hinch, was less eager to put the matter to rest.

“The Committee’s decision to resolve the complaint without formal sanctions doesn’t excuse the fact that the Committee found a litany of questionable activity and votes by the Majority Leader that appear to have been in violation of ethics guidelines,” Hinch said in a statement emailed by his press office, shortly after the ethics ruling was made public.

The House Republican Office did not respond when asked whether Hinch, who runs a real estate business, plans to recuse himself from future legislation pertaining to his line of work in light of the ethics committee’s ruling.