Bob Mead, a state employee in the House Majority Office, was reimbursed by taxpayers for traveling to Republican events where he sought to recruit House candidates for this year's elections.
While it's rare that House employees file for mileage, the practice is allowed. State House veterans, however, say the purpose of Mead's activity has crossed into an ethical gray area.
"House employees should be paid with public money only for legislative - not campaign - work," said Rep. Terie Norelli, the House Democratic leader from Portsmouth.
Mead, a former state representative from Mont Vernon, was House chief of staff during Bill O'Brien's first year as speaker. In December, he was moved to a post in the House Majority Office, and rumblings at the State House indicated Mead was unhappy with the demotion. He took a $19,820 cut to his annual salary - he now makes $64,380 - and assumed a newly created position, director of legislative services.
Mead declined comment about the mileage Friday when approached inside his office on the third floor of the State House.
"I'm not going to talk about it," he said.
Norelli said Mead's trips raise questions "as to what exactly Bob Mead is being paid to do for the House Majority Office." Mead is known to check in with Republican representatives about their plans, maintain a list of who is running or retiring and share that information with the state party. A county GOP official said he exchanges weekly emails with Mead to make sure their lists of potential candidates match up, and Mead sends a note if he hears of a potential candidate in the area.
House Majority Whip Shawn Jasper, a nine-term Hudson Republican, said at one point he received an email from Mead asking him if he is seeking his seat again.
"To the best of my knowledge, he is keeping track of which Republicans are planning on running," Jasper said. "Beyond that, I'm really not sure what he's doing."
Mead's job description puts him in charge of "legislative outreach," for which he is to "coordinate, develop and cultivate relationships with legislators, as well as state, county and local leaders to expand communications and dialogue and to provide information about legislative goals and the Majority agenda."
Through February and March, Mead tallied $455.66 in mileage and tolls to attend events throughout the state where he gave a "presentation on legislator services."
According to people who were at some of the GOP meetings, the presentations mostly encouraged attendees to run for office.
"He was like, we need people to fill these slates out, we've got to get some bodies in these seats here," said Rep. Mike Ball, chairman of the Manchester Republican Committee. Ball didn't feel Mead's message was partisan, saying it "could have just as easily been given to a Democratic city committee."
Jerry DeLemus, head of the conservative Rochester 9-12 group, said Mead attended a monthly meeting where "his whole approach with our group was to see if there were any candidates to fill any voids that were there."
DeLemus, like others interviewed about Mead's presentations, said they heard no message from Mead that potential candidates must support O'Brien's re-election as speaker.
"He didn't mention any covert plans, except obviously they want to hold on to the majority or the supermajority if possible," DeLemus said. "I think he's just trying to motivate people to run for office and fill the seats if they're a good, qualified candidate."
Seven times Mead took trips from Concord to places including Rochester, Durham and Laconia. Four times he left from Mont Vernon, including a North Haverhill visit on a Sunday in March, racking up 232 miles round-trip, a day after he billed taxpayers for a Saturday trip to Concord.
Mead is the only member of House majority or minority office to have filed for state mileage reimbursement over the past two years, according to the legislative accounting office. House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt said he didn't know Mead was billing the state for his travel until his office was contacted by the Monitor.
"What Bob Mead does during his off hours is entirely his business," Bettencourt said. But upon learning of the mileage requests, "the speaker and I asked Bob Mead to reimburse the state and it is my understanding he has done so. Bob fully respects that it is important to guard against even the appearance of any impropriety as a public employee."
Question of judgment
The New Hampshire General Court's ethics guidelines don't expressly prohibit campaign or electoral work on state time. They say that legislative employees "should view his or her work for the General Court as a public service and should strive to promote the common good of the citizens of the State of New Hampshire through the devotion of his or her professional talents and energies to the support of the General Court in its mission as the representative of the citizens of this state."
"A legislative employee or officer should provide objective advice, information, and alternatives to legislators, independent of the employee's or officer's personal beliefs or interests or the interests of third parties," the guidelines say. "A legislative employee or officer should avoid activities that conflict with this objectivity or give the appearance of conflict."
Greg Moore, O'Brien's current chief of staff who replaced Mead, signed off on Mead's mileage reimbursement. Moore said Mead is presumably doing his job "if his job is outreach and he's reaching out to Republican groups," and added that Mead has passed along various requests from constituents.
"Obviously what he's doing in his partisan role as a partisan staffer is whatever direction he gets from the majority office," Moore said. As House chief of staff, Moore does not work in the majority office.
Bettencourt said House employees get their job descriptions from the chief of staff, who also has sole authority to approve mileage reimbursement. The majority office "has absolutely no role in mileage reimbursement," Bettencourt said.
"During the times Bob is at the State House, his activities are consistent with his job description, which involve responsibilities the partisan office has always handled," Bettencourt said.
Democrats say all their electoral work is performed by party officials or workers paid for by a political action committee. Donna Sytek, a former Republican House speaker, said she constantly tried to get candidates to run for office, but she has never heard of a lawmaker or employee making such efforts on state time or mileage.
"We never had anybody that was specifically tasked with recruiting candidates," she said.
There are three employees in the Republican-controlled House Majority Office and two employees in the Democratic House Minority office. The annual salaries of the five state employees range from $45,458 to $68,566. When Democrats controlled the House from 2007 to 2010, they averaged three full-time employees and one part-timer in the majority office, none of whom performed electoral work, according to Eileen Kelly, the Democrats' senior legislative assistant.
"It was strictly policy and office-running," Kelly said.
For state employees who are partisan by nature, separating legislative duties from electoral work can be a "gray area," Sytek said.
"I always wondered why state dollars supported partisan offices, but that was historically how it was done," Sytek said. "I thought, well, someone must have thought this through and thought it was okay."
Moore said tax dollars have supported partisan staffers for as long as he can remember, but a future Legislature could choose to change the policy.
"That's a question that I suppose could come up in a speaker's race," he said.