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Bragdon resigns as lead senator

Conflicts of interest cited in decision

N.H. Senator Peter Bragdon announced Friday that he is resigning his post as senate president, after hearing criticisms that his new job as executive director of the HealthTrust, which is associated with the Local Government Center, is a conflict of interest.

Bragdon (R-Milford), is a representative of District 11, which includes Wilton, Milford, Amherst and Merrimack. He will retain that position, he said in an interview Monday. As of Aug. 14, he joined the Local Government Center . The organization is expected to undergo a reorganization on Sept. 1, when the LGC will be renamed the N.H. Municipal Association, Inc. According to Bragdon’s employment agreement, at that time the Local Government Center HealthTrust and the Local Government Center Property Liability Trust will split off as their own, independent nonprofit organizations. Bragdon will continue as executive director of the HealthTrust, which is an employee benefits pool devoted exclusively to serving towns, cities, counties, schools and quasi-municipal organizations in New Hampshire. Bragdon will have no association with the N.H. Municipal Association, according to his employment agreement.

Members from both political parties, as well as the State Securities Bureau — the regulating body that oversees the LGC — have expressed concern that serving as the Senate president while directing the HealthTrust would create a problem. As Senate president, Bragdon sets the agenda for the Senate, names committee members, and signs every bill before it is placed before the governor. Also, in New Hampshire in the event of the governor’s death, resignation, or inability to serve, the president of the Senate acts as governor until the vacancy is filled.

When critics first voiced opinions that Bragdon’s new job created a conflict with his position as Senate president, Bragdon stated that all senators occasionally have conflicts between their livelihoods and political careers. After considering the arguments, however, Bragdon said he decided the position he held as president came with a layer of responsibility other Senate positions do not.

“After I had some time to reflect on things, and had seen the arguments, I decided there was merit in those arguments,” Bragdon said. “I was of the opinion that my position was no different than any other senator, but on Thursday I came to the conclusion that the president has many more challenges. The perception of conflict of interest was there, and I thought it was best to take off that perception. It was best to avoid that for the integrity of the overall Senate.”

Bragdon added that there is still the potential for conflicts of interest between his new job and his position as a senator, but repeated his original argument: All senators have potential conflicts of interest. “There are three senators employed by state agencies,” said Bragdon. “We all face areas where there are conflicts all the time. At that point, the senator points out the conflict and recuses himself.”

In a statement issued Friday, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan supported Bragdon’s decision to resign. “In light of the concerns raised about his position with the Local Government Center, I believe that Senator Bragdon has taken an appropriate step in resigning as Senate president,” Hassan wrote in the statement. “I greatly appreciate his service in that role, and have enjoyed working with him to constructively address our challenges. No matter who is voted by the Senate to be their next president, I look forward to working with him or her to continue moving our state forward through the traditions of hard work, bipartisanship and commonsense problem-solving that the people of New Hampshire expect and deserve.”

Bragdon’s fellow senator, Peggy Gilmour (D-Hollis), who represents District 12, said in a phone interview Monday that Bragdon’s new position with the HealthTrust was a concern. “I was concerned that he would find himself in a conflicted position,” she said. “The first and most important step was to step down as president, and he’s done that. And I think once he realized there was a perception of conflict, he moved quickly [to step down] which is a good thing for everyone. We’re coming onto a busy season in the Senate and we need to move along without distraction.”

Gilmour said there is still a potential for conflict, but she is more comfortable moving forward now that Bragdon is no longer president. “The biggest thing was that as the president, as opposed to a regular senator, he had a much larger sphere of influence in that he appoints members to committees,” she said. “I think that’s much different than someone filling their role as a committee member or chair.”

Senator Bob Odell (R-Lempster), representing district 8, said in a phone interview Monday that he was initially surprised that Bragdon had taken on the position, as the position of Senate president is an involved one. Odell did not have enough time to form an opinion on the matter before Bragdon decided to step down as president.

“I think that from all I’ve heard in the last couple of days, people are pleased with the process and feel he’s doing the right thing,” Odell said. “I think being Senate president is a real special position. I think that was the biggest situation.”

Odell said he was supportive of Bragdon throughout the process and thanked him for his service up to this point. “We were all very supportive of him as Senate president,” Odell said. “He’s done an outstanding job.”

Barry Glennon, the director for the State’s Securities Bureau, which regulates the LGC, said Bragdon’s resignation lowers the risk of conflict of interest, though it doesn’t eliminate it entirely. “I think it certainly reduces the conflict, simply because former president Bragdon wouldn’t be involved in setting legislative agenda and having direct sway over legislation as it makes its way though the process, or no more than any regular senator,” he said. “There will be conflicts of interest, and it’s uniquely his resolution to declare those conflicts and recuse himself in those instances.” Glennon added that Bragdon would have to be mindful of legislation that would affect the LCG or any of its entities.

Others feel that stepping down as president doesn’t solve the underlying issue. In a statement issued Friday, N.H. Democratic Party Communications Director Harrell Kirstein noted that while removing himself as president is a good initial step, there are still inherent conflicts of interest associated with Bragdon’s new job. “Bragdon will still vote on the Secretary of State, will still be negotiating with the Bureau of Securities on behalf of the LGC, and his employers still sit on the Board of the Municipal Association. He still owes the people of New Hampshire a detailed and honest explanation immediately,” Kirstein is quoted as saying in the release.

Bragdon is still in the process of coordinating a date for the Senate to reconvene to vote on a new president. The position remains empty until then, he said, as the Senate is currently in recess and there is no business before it. Odell voiced his support of Senator Chuck Morse for the position. Morse, a Salem Republican, has expressed interest in the position since Bragdon’s resignation, according to published reports.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244.

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