CONCORD – Gov. Chris Sununu said he would support a change in a 2016 judicial policy related to relaying information to gun dealers about some who have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility and weighed in on a number of other hot political topics in a meeting with reporters in his office Wednesday, including the arrest of former state Rep. Troy Merner.
Sununu said all he knows is what the public knows about Merner, a Republican who served in the House to represent the Lancaster area, but moved out of district before the last session started and served illegally for the whole time anyway.
Merner, 63, who now lives in Carroll was charged Tuesday with one class B felony count of wrongful voting, and misdemeanor charges of theft by deception, unsworn falsification and tampering with public records. The felony voting charge alone could land him in state prison for up to 3 1/2 to 7 years if convicted.
In the affidavit filed for Merner’s arrest, the investigator said the Attorney General’s Office had investigated an earlier complaint against Merner for living out of district and notified Terry Pfaff, the Chief Operating Officer for the General Court, before the last House session began.
It said on “Dec. 6, 2022, Deputy General Counsel Myles Matteson and Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards had a phone conversation with Terry Pfaff, the chief operating officer of the General Court regarding the complaint received and investigation into state Rep. Merner’s domicile.”
Sununu said at the press conference Wednesday: “The Speaker of the House took it up with Representative Merner… and my understanding is he attested or signed to something that said ‘yeah, I lived there and then when it was discovered that it wasn’t true in the September time frame, that the Speaker took additional action and asked him to step down. So, that’s, I kinda know what you guys know, because it has been an attorney general investigation so obviously he stepped down and I assume the attorney general’s office will prosecute this appropriately.”
Sununu said “it’s a pretty unique situation and I don’t have anything I can compare it to.”
Sununu said there is no indication that House leadership knew that Merner was voting illegally, in a razor thin majority between Republicans and Democrats in the almost equally split, 400 member House.
Asked if he would support Republican House Speaker Sherman Packard’s ouster if it is found that he knew of the illegality, Sununu said there is no evidence of that.
“The Speaker said, ‘we asked him and he signed something and attested that he was living there.’ I don’t know what else you could ask him.”
Speaker Packard issued a news release Wednesday that differed from information the Attorney General’s Office had released.
“The information supplied by the Department of Justice in December contained preliminary information they had obtained through an investigation up to that date. The information was not conclusive in nature and made no final determination about Merner’s domicile. The information also contained Merner’s account that the allegations were unfounded, and that the investigation was ongoing,” Packard said.
On Wednesday, the Attorney General’s Office said the Merner investigation has shifted from its Election Law Unit to the Public Integrity Unit.
Spokesman Mike Garrity declined to say if anyone else, including the House leadership, is being investigated in the matter.
“Our Public Integrity Unit is in charge. We have no further public update on the criminal investigation. We will keep following the facts,” Garrity said.
Former state Senators Peter Burling of Cornish, a Democrat, and Mark Hounsell, a former Republican now Independent from Conway, have been fighting under the state’s right-to-know law to find out who knew about Merner and when they knew it.
They believe the investigation should continue to make sure the public learns how someone was able to serve and vote in the House illegally for a whole session.
“At the absolute very least the chief operating officer (Terry Pfaff) should have advised the Speaker to investigate Merner’s residency. The House was obligated to deal with Merner quickly a year ago before the session commenced. Their offense is greater than Troy Merner’s,” Hounsell said.
Who To Endorse
At the press conference, the four-term Republican governor, who is not running for another term nor is he seeking the White House, also said he has still not made up his mind on who to endorse among three governors who are running for the presidential nomination in his party, noting it is down in his mind to South Carolina’s former Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey.
And, he said he was disappointed by the Republican-controlled Executive Council’s repeated rejection of contracts to support family planning contracts at clinics, which provide basic health care for many low-income individuals.
REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH CARE CONTRACTS
For a fifth time the 4-1 Republican controlled Council voted down some reproductive health care contracts.
“It’s obviously disappointing. I keep bringing the contracts back. I was very supportive of those contracts. I think Trish Tilley did a great job as the director of public health explaining not just what these contracts fund, but the importance of them in vulnerable and underserved communities and constituencies. Men, women, children, folks all across the state take advantage of this stuff. I will work with the council, try to get them to a ‘yes’ but it hasn’t happened yet but we will keep trying,” Sununu said.
He was asked if there would be negative repercussions if council members decide to run again in a state which has largely sided with reproductive rights.
“We tend not to be a state of one issue voters,” Sununu said. “I am sure some voters don’t like the fact that they (the Executive Council) didn’t vote for it, but at the end of the day, I don’t think…there is so many other things to vote on and so many other things that come before the Executive Council, I don’t think one contract or one issue determines whether someone gets elected or not.”
Sununu stressed that all the financial audits of these clinics have shown that these funds are completely separate from funds that would provide for abortion services.
“We don’t do taxpayer funded abortions. We never have. These services really go to a lot of preventive basic medical care that these facilities provide for a lot of populations that otherwise would not get that,” Sununu said.
Asked why he has asked the legislative Cannabis Commission for a ban on lobbying and political contributions by licensees, Sununu said the state is looking at a model for cannabis sales through the state Liquor Commission that would oversee it.
“These are not solely private businesses. These are franchisees that are working under the state liquor commission model and the government can’t lobby for itself, effectively, so that is where it came from,” he said.
While the model of franchisees was not his idea “I’m open to the model,” Sununu said. “You don’t want such a small constituency to really have all the say of where it can go.”
While he said New Hampshire does lobbying “pretty well” and it is fairly even handed, because it is such a new industry, “we really want to make sure that again the government is driving it.”
He said it would be the only such government-driven model in the nation.
The commission is not making a recommendation to the legislature following its study this summer and fall but legislation is likely to be considered in the coming session.
Sununu said you “just want to remove the outside influences as the model is getting up.”
JUDICIAL INFORMATION ON GUNS FOR THOSE COMMITTED NEEDS TO FLOW
Given what happened at the New Hampshire State Hospital Nov. 17 when unarmed state security guard Bradley Haas was killed, allegedly by a man who was once held there involuntarily, and who was then killed by a state trooper, Sununu was asked if the law or policy should change on information from the judiciary on access to weapons.
“Look, I think across the country folks would say if you have an involuntary process, I know there are questions about how that information is processed from the Judicial System into the (weapons purchase check) system so it can be more readily made available. I know that the Attorney General is working with folks within the Judicial branch to hopefully review that decision that they made years ago, I think it was back in 2016 when they originally made that decision to hopefully get it either reconsidered or understand what laws need to be changed to make sure that that information is part of the NICS system and would be made available to anyone…in a position of selling a firearm.
“I think the policy needs to be changed on the judicial side. I think everybody agrees with that,” Sununu said.
InDepthNH.org reported earlier this week that Attorney General John Formella is re-evaluating the state’s position against reporting certain mentally ill people to the national database that could potentially keep those like John Madore, the alleged assailant from legally purchasing firearms.
Formella’s office is still investigating how Madore, 33, obtained the 9 mm pistol he used to kill unarmed security guard Bradley Haas 12 days ago at the New Hampshire Hospital in Concord or the AR-style rifle found in the U-haul Madore left running in the parking lot before he was killed by a state trooper who was on duty at the hospital.
Sununu noted that the Department of Safety, under Commissioner Robert L. Quinn “is doing a tremendous job really around the clock” looking at policies and infrastructure after the tragic events that just happened at the New Hampshire State Hospital.
He noted Quinn’s report for change, to enhance safety there is not limited to the state psychiatric hospital but for other facilities across the state.
“They are really looking at an entire system of state buildings, offices, areas of vulnerability,” he said.
There is a need to implement them “in short order” but there is also an organic review of state systems, he said.
Asked why Haas, a security guard and the former Police Chief of Franklin was not able to be armed in that location, Sununu said that was a policy decision of the hospital “knowing that sometimes the guards can potentially move within the hospital setting. A lot of hospitals, their security guards around the state are not armed for various reasons. But I guess I would refer to them on that policy decision.”
On Tuesday, the Department of Safety indicated that they would be beefing up armed staffing at the state’s only psychiatric hospital.
Reporter Nancy West contributed to this report.