Sunday, February 25, 2018

Big Booze, Big Bucks - Corruption in NH

On January 13, the Union Leader published an excellent story by Kevin Landrigan called Bootleg Booze: A NH to NY Pipeline. We learn that people from other states are coming to NH to make large purchases of cheap liquor. This isn't buying 10 cases of wine for a wedding. These are bulk purchases amounting to thousands of dollars....but only purchases up to $9,995 dollars. A cash purchase of over $10,000 requires filling out an IRS form. These modern day bootleggers don't want any records that might call into question where all that cash came from in the first place, so they split the cash payment between several purchasers, or pay half in cash and half on a credit card.  The act of splitting up a transaction to avoid the federal requirements is known as "structuring." NH Liquor Commissioner Joseph Mollica almost seems to be bragging about how cleverly NH skirts the law by looking the other way. 

Fast forward a month. NHPR gives us the latest on this same story. Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky calls for an investigation into the Liquor Commission after spending some time at a store where the bootlegging activity is taking place. He sent the governor a letter detailing his concerns. Particularly troubling is the finding that employees make large cash deposits, putting them at great risk. 

One might think that a warning of  potentially illegal and dangerous activities would be met with gratitude - especially before anything hit the proverbial fan - but one would be wrong. Instead of the thanks of a grateful state government, Councilor Volinsky was greeted with hostility and accusations. 

The very same paper that published Kevin Landrigan's story, printed this editorial, mocking Councilor Volinsky for reporting the same findings their own paper had printed weeks before. The very same paper printed this story featuring Jeanne Forrester, chair of the NH Republican Party, calling for an investigation into Councilor Volinsky, a month after publishing Kevin Landrigan's story. She called Volinsky's allegations "bizarre." It's amazing how a story can go from zero to "bizarre" in a month. It's almost as if there were some kind of partisan ideology afoot here. Oh, say it ain't so! 

Governor Chris Sununu said there were questions to be answered by both sidesBothsiderism is very popular with today's Republicans. Our governor is a big Trump supporter. You'll remember that Trump said there were "good people on both sides" of the white supremacist march on Charlottesville last year. 

There was this from the NH Republican Party Chair:

Drop the disguise? He was dressed in jeans, a sweater, and a baseball cap on a weekend - in front of security cameras. He wasn't wearing a disguise like this guy:

It seems likely there were hundreds of visitors to that same store over that weekend who wearing a "disguise" just like Councilor Volinksky's. 

Oh, and speaking of "investigations conducted above board," there was one conducted by the Republican Speaker of the NH House in 2012:

“We need significantly more oversight to determine if this is a rogue agency,” said Republican Bill O’Brien in 2012, when he was Speaker of the New Hampshire House. He launched a bipartisan Special House Committee that year to conduct a wide-ranging review of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission.
The committee, which met twelve times between September and November 2012, was charged with investigating, among other areas, the Liquor Commission’s alleged use a government-hired lobbyist, how $100,000 worth of wine went missing in Portsmouth, how the agency handled government records, and - relevant to Volinsky’s current allegations - how the agency managed “bootlegging,” an industry term for large, all-cash transactions, usually involving out-of-state buyers."

Would Forrester and Sununu consider a committee launched by the GOP Speaker of the NH House, the patron saint of the liberty caucus, "above board?" Read more at  the NHPR story, which includes a link to the committee report.

It is dazzling that reporting on potentially illegal, seemingly corrupt, and dangerous practices can be blamed on the messenger. It wasn't problematic when it was O'Brien's committee...but suddenly, the very same story is causing the majority party to clutch their pearls in horror. 

For more on the story from Councilor Volinsky, listen to him on this podcast of The Attitude with Arnie Arnesen. Full disclosure: I was the producer of the show, so I was sitting right there as Andru talked about how thousands of dollars were counted right there on the counter in front of the windows. 

There are a lot of questions that need answering. Our state liquor store employees need to be protected. Our liquor commissioner has some explaining to do - and so do Jeanne Forrester and Chris Sununu. Their knee jerk reaction to Councilor Volinsky's findings is reprehensible. 

The Valley News calls for an investigation in this editorial. Not so the Union Leader. They suggest in this peculiar editorial that by not ignoring potentially illegal and corrupt activities, Andru is trying to give NH an INCOME TAX. That's right. They want him (and all of us) to turn a blind eye so that NH can keep on raking in the big booze bucks. 

There must be an investigation - an independent investigation. The money trail is going to be fascinating. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The State of the State

Last week, Governor Chris Sununu gave his State of the State Address. What he didn’t say was far more interesting than the predictable blather about no taxes and business, business, business.  

Governor Sununu didn’t mention his number one legislative priority and the very first bill he signed. It was the bill to eliminate the licensing requirement for a concealed pistol or revolver. He campaigned on that bill, which, by the way, was sponsored by Senator Jeb Bradley. Sununu signed the bill in a “private” ceremony, where he was surrounded by some of the leading gundamentalists in the NH House.

After the signing ceremony, the governor posed for photos with the two NRA representatives who were on hand for the private signing ceremony. John Hohenwarter is in charge of government relations at the NRA. His focus is working to eliminate local gun control laws. NRA director of state and local affairs, Lacey Biles was also on hand. His focus is hunting laws. The NRA is known for their generosity to their allies at campaign time, which means this will be a money trail worth following. 

Perhaps, given the slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the governor decided it might be in poor taste to remind us all of his first legislative priority and triumph. Or perhaps, given the slaughter, he’d just as soon not remind us that of all the things he could have prioritized, he chose to make our gun laws weaker.

Instead, Sununu spoke mostly of economics. Old people were mentioned only as “contributing immensely to the economy.” That’s certainly an artful way of saying that a lot of old people can’t afford to retire because their property taxes are so high.

There was no mention of the arts or culture. No mention of tourism. No mention of our parks or mountains. No mention of the impact of climate change on our state, or the need to plan for the future of rising sea levels.

The most glaring omission in his speech was any mention of the North Country. What has Sununu done for the north? He pardoned some nuisance bears – and he’s been outspoken in his opposition to the decision made by the SEC regarding Northern Pass. Just as he knew better than Fish and Game about those bears, he knows better than the SEC about an issue he’s had no involvement in.

Whenever you ask someone where their favorite part of the state to visit is, they always say either the lakes region or the mountains. No one ever says they’re eager to vacation in Epping, yet everyone’s favorite part of the state is ignored by our state government. How many times has Sununu been to Coos since he was elected by busloads of people from Massachusetts? Don’t worry, Coos. He’ll be coming around looking for your votes and your money for his reelection soon enough. Just don’t expect any return on your investment.

Speaking of those busloads, Sununu made no mention of fauxter fraud or the ongoing attempt by the majority party to enact voter suppression legislation. 

The governor did give himself a big pat on the back for sending $30 million back to cities and towns for infrastructure projects. Surely that $1800 made a big dent in Hart’s Location’s infrastructure needs.   

Sununu made a big point of telling us that he’s a product of the public school system – a system he’s working hard to dismantle. Putting Frank Edelblut, a man with zero qualifications for the job in charge of the Dept. of Education was the first step. The majority party is working on a voucher program that would funnel tax dollars for public schools to private schools, religious schools, and home schools. In addition to taking money out of the schools, the accountability piece of the voucher bill is murky at best. Whenever taxpayer funds are spent, there must be accountability.

It was a disappointing speech. When we elect people who believe government is essentially a business, we get a government that is only interested in representing business interests – and only some business interests at that.  The businesses of the North Country would benefit from investment in our state parks, but that isn’t ever a consideration. If our state really were a business, no one would look twice at the peeling, unlit outside sign, never mind walk up the broken steps to knock on the unpainted front door.

The northern part of the state exists as a sort of Brigadoon, a place where Republicans can wax nostalgic about the Old Man, and Mel Thomson – and ignore the rest.

The lack of content wasn’t met with dismay. Governor Sununu is affable and always willing to jump in front of a camera. His informal style plays well with the media, who have little interest in holding him accountable. Hopefully voters will.  

Published as an op-ed in the February 23, 2018 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Poultry in Motion

There were 1101 legislative service requests filed for the 2018 session of the NH House. An LSR is a fledgling bill, one that is written up by a legislator and sent off to be refined and gone over by legislative services, and will then go on to be assigned a number and be sent to a committee. Eighty-three bills were withdrawn before reaching legislative services.

It’s always an adventure. A fair percentage of bills will be retreads that we see over and over, sometimes for decades. There are bill sponsors who pay no attention to the fact that their favorite hobbyhorse doesn’t delight anyone else, or the time for their dream (can anyone say casino?) has passed.

In other legislative updates, last week the legislature had a non-mandatory training for the 425 members of the NH General Court on sexual harassment and discrimination. Of the 425 members, fewer than 10% were in attendance. The rest, no doubt assuming that they were already fully capable of engaging in harassment and needed no further guidance. The presentation is available on the NH General Court website for anyone who is interested.

There are 8 gun related bills this session. There is one bill related to bridge construction. We have hundreds of bridges in dire need of repair, and some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country. There are 20 bills related to “domicile” which is defined in the NH dictionary as “way to prevent voting.” There are 21 bills that are related to “voter,” as in “we don’t want you to vote.” HB 1772 would allow online voter registration, something the Republicans will never allow. After all, a bus can’t park behind a computer.

HB 1474 would make the NH Red the official state poultry. We have pretty much an official state everything else, so why not let the chickens have their day? Indiana is just getting around to passing a bill to make the firefly their state insect. NH has had a state insect since 1977. Take that, Hoosiers.

HB 1242 comes from two young state representatives seeking to create a committee to redesign the state flag. It’s true that the image of a frigate that appears to have run aground may not be the most interesting state flag, but the sponsors of this bill stipulate that the new design will feature the Old Man of the Mountain and the state motto. The Old Man fell off the side of the mountain in 2003. Why do even young New Hampshire guys want to live in the past?  What we need is a new (less destructive) state motto and a new state song. “Old New Hampshire” is a dirge. Lets try for something with a dance beat.

There are 4 abortion bills this year. HB 1707 would create a waiting period. The woman would have to go see a doctor to be handed information, and 24 hours later would be able to go back and access a procedure that she has a legal right to. HB 1721 would force a woman to go through a screening process to determine that she isn’t being coerced, prior to accessing a procedure she has a legal right to obtain. Other medical procedures don’t require this. In HB 1680, the fantasy gyno team will attempt to ban abortion after “viability.” They did include a stingy little line to cover medical emergencies, though in reading the bill you get the feeling they’d just as soon let the woman die.

HB1787 concerns the “right of conscience” for health care providers, including pharmacists. The bill’s concerns are only around abortion, sterilization, or birth control. To give an example of the breadth of concern these folks have for the born, note that every single one of the sponsors of these abortion bills voted against the Family and Medical Leave Insurance bill, except for the two who didn’t bother to vote. As for pharmacists, they aren’t doctors. It’s their job to fill prescriptions. If they can’t manage that, they should find other employment.

SB 465 (the duplicate House Bill is 1762) is a bill that would change child labor laws – especially for kids working in restaurants, allow employers to make tip pooling involuntary, and take rulemaking authority on wages, hours, and child labor from the Dept. of Labor and give it to the legislature. Senator Andy Sanborn, lead sponsor, owns a sports bar and is running for Congress in CD-1. You’ve gotta marvel at him for being so blatantly self-serving while running for higher office.

There are many more, but I’ll end with HB 1289, a bill that makes trespassing fowl a violation, instead of something to work out with a neighbor. Trespassing fowl could also be called poultry in motion. If you have “She Blinded Me With Science” as an earworm’re welcome.

This was published as an op-ed in the February 9, 2018 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper