It has not been a good couple of weeks for the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
First, there was the Concord Monitor report last month alleging that House staffer Bob Mead had used taxpayer funds for candidate outreach. Mead apparently filed for mileage reimbursement for travel to events at which he attempted to recruit candidates. He filed for more than $400 worth of travel expenses. Mead has since resigned.
But the pot was only simmering then. It’s a full rolling boil now.
Now-former House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt was forced to resign nearly two weeks ago because he allegedly made up reports and documentation for a law school internship that he never actually performed. Bettencourt reportedly agreed to take part in an internship at the firm of fellow Rep. Brandon Giuda, but Bettencourt only showed up for about an hour of work.
Giuda was outraged when he found out Bettencourt had submitted extensive documentation to the University of New Hampshire School of Law detailing an 11-week internship. Bettencourt apparently made up meetings and court proceedings in his reports. Bettencourt did acknowledge his misdeeds when he resigned, though it did take two tries.
The impact that these two instances have on this year’s election is unclear, but they have certainly provided Democrats with a big, wide target at which to lob political bombs.
Democrats are pushing now to keep the Bettencourt scandal in the news. They want to know what House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, knows about the scandal — and when he knew it. Democrats have sent O’Brien a letter with questions regarding when he found out about Bettencourt’s transgressions. Bettencourt was also to begin a new job as executive director of the New Hampshire Legal Rights Foundation, a new nonprofit that O’Brien reportedly founded.
This would really blow up if it somehow comes out that O’Brien had any prior knowledge of Bettencourt’s non-existent internship. That’s certainly what Democrats are hoping for.
“We’ve already seen Democrats calling for an investigation,” said political analyst Dean Spiliotes. “What they’d like to do is find out if leadership knew about this and if there was a cover-up. That would certainly be more damaging.”
If information comes out that O’Brien somehow knew about this in advance, Spiliotes said Democrats would be able to paint House Republicans as not really being accountable to anyone.
Even though Bettencourt has resigned, University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said he thought the scandal could pose a problem for Republicans.
“It gives Democrats a very good opportunity to frame the Republican majority as corrupt,” Scala said. “It’s difficult to get voters interested in the goings on in Concord. The stories about Speaker O’Brien being very heavy-handed, that he acts more like a czar than a speaker, I think that tends to wash over voters as typical politics. But the thing about the Bettencourt scandal is that voters understand it and it’s easy for Democrats to hang this whole culture of corruption in Concord and hang it on what Bettencourt did.”
Democrats got that memo.
“In his pursuit of his extreme, far-right agenda, Bill O’Brien has created a culture of corruption in the New Hampshire,” said Rep. Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, in a state Democratic party press release. “O’Brien, Bettencourt and their team have stomped on anything that gets in their way, including House rules, the New Hampshire Constitution, and the people of New Hampshire. It’s time Bill O’Brien face the music and tell the people of New Hampshire the full story behind both these scandals.”
On the other hand, the election is a long ways off, and the GOP will be able to point to a number of accomplishments during its tenure, not the least of which is that Republicans held the line on government spending.
“I don’t believe that voters particularly care about the inside baseball that is the inner workings of the legislature,” said GOP political strategist Michael Dennehy. “They care about one thing and one thing only and that is the result. … So if Republicans get out the message that they trimmed the budget for the first time in a decade, that they did what voters sent them there to do, then that will benefit them tremendously.”
Dennehy said given that Democrats haven’t been in office in the last two years, Democrats don’t have anything to run on.
“All they can do is point to a so-called controversy, any controversy, with House leadership in particular,” Dennehy said. “They probably today think the D.J. Bettencourt scandal will help them in the election, but I couldn’t disagree more. It hasn’t affected how the House operates or the legislature in general. They’ve held the line on spending. That’s what voters wanted. All the other partisan bickering is just background noise. That won’t have any impact on the election.”
The scandal could provide some political cover to other GOP legislators.
“It’s certainly not going to help any Republicans, but it might embolden some to break ranks,” Spiliotes said, noting that O’Brien had sent a letter to House members calling for them to stay unified.
Democrats will try to keep the news on this going for as long as possible. The impact could be lasting if more lawmakers are ultimately implicated. So far, there is no indication that is the case.