New Hampshire House Speaker Sherman Packard has asked the state’s top law enforcement officials to look into whether an ethics flap over an alleged offer of airfare entailed any illegal activity.
Packard, a Republican, suggested in a letter to the Department of Justice that the Democratic lawmaker at the center of the controversy might have committed a felony even if he rebuffed an outside offer to cover his travel expenses ahead of a high-stakes vote. That’s because the law requires public officials to tell law enforcement if someone offers them a bribe, he wrote.
Packard didn’t directly accuse anyone of a crime, and he said “there is no evidence” that the lawmaker accepted the alleged offer. His letter effectively asked the DOJ to review whether an illegal bribe was offered and whether the lawmaker failed to fulfill a duty to report it.
“The purpose of this letter, therefore, is to not only bring this matter to your attention for review of a potential violation of the law, but also to ensure that it has been properly reported to law enforcement as required by the statute,” Packard wrote.
A spokesperson for the DOJ said Wednesday that the department is reviewing Packard’s referral “and will respond as appropriate in due course.”
The dispute erupted May 17, after Democratic Representative Robin Vogt of Portsmouth announced on Twitter that he planned to be away on a long-planned family vacation when the House voted on a controversial parental rights bill that LGBTQ rights advocates warned would curtail the privacy rights of gender non-conforming youth.
Vogt, a self-described “loud advocate and ally” for LGBTQ people, faced a slew of criticism from fellow progressives. One reply stood out from the rest: Linds Jakows, founder of 603 Equality, a group that rallied opposition to the bill, faulted Vogt for choosing to remain in Florida “when there are funds to fly you to New Hampshire and back.”
The tweet was later deleted, but lawmakers shared screenshots and said Jakows appeared to be describing what would amount to an impermissible gift under the legislature’s ethics rules.
House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, a Republican, expressed outrage that “an unregistered Democrat lobbying organization would offer to fund travel expenses for a legislator in order to influence the outcome of a vote.”
Jakows pushed back, saying that some community members had proposed crowdsourcing funds to get Vogt back to Concord for the vote. They said they don’t know whether anyone actually offered anything of value to Vogt, who clearly indicated his plans were to remain on vacation.
Jakows did not respond Tuesday to a request for additional comment, and Vogt has not responded to the Globe’s requests for comment.
House Minority Leader Matthew Wilhelm, a Democrat, said on May 17 that it looked like Republicans were trying to “manufacture outrage based on a vague tweet by an activist concerned about attendance.” He said he wasn’t aware of any members accepting gifts to facilitate their attendance.
Wilhelm added on Tuesday that if Packard wants to ask the DOJ to investigate a tweet, that’s his prerogative.
“It’s hard for me to understand what laws could have been broken,” he said.
The state ethics law that applies to New Hampshire lawmakers prohibits them from soliciting or knowingly accepting gifts, and the Legislative Ethics Committee has previously called for harsh punishment over donations accepted to defray a lawmaker’s living expenses, including transportation. (New Hampshire lawmakers earn $100 per year plus mileage, so serving in the legislature is effectively a volunteer role.)
Packard’s letter, which he sent to the DOJ on Friday and which his office released to the Globe on Wednesday, focused primarily on the state’s anti-corruption law. While some of the alleged conduct may fall under the legislative ethics law and relevant guidelines, those provisions apply “to legislators and legislative staff, not outside parties,” he noted.
“In the absence of any evidence of unethical conduct by the member, this does not appear to be an appropriate matter for referral to the Legislative Ethics Committee,” he wrote.
Packard asked that the DOJ look into whether any violation of the ethics law, the anti-corruption law, “or any other law” has occurred.
The state’s anti-corruption law makes it a felony to give or offer “any pecuniary benefit” to anyone for the purpose of influencing their actions as “a public servant, party official, or voter.” It’s likewise a felony for a public official to solicit or accept any such benefit, or to fail to report such an offer to law enforcement.
Aside from a potential prison sentence for a felony conviction, a charge of bribery, corruption, malpractice, or maladministration could be grounds for impeachment under the New Hampshire Constitution.
Although Vogt’s absence on May 18 led one progressive group to revoke its endorsement of him, it didn’t prevent Democrats and LGBTQ rights advocates from defeating the parental rights bill that Packard, Osborne, and other Republicans had supported. With several GOP absences, the full House voted 195-190 to kill the controversial bill.