Gionet seeks Attorney General's counsel
February 04, 2011CONCORD- The bitter clash between Representative Edmond Gionet, of Lincoln, and former representative Martha McLeod, of Franconia, is causing a stir in the statehouse as criticism rains down on Speaker of the House William O'Brien for supporting former client Gionet's action to seek legal representation from the Attorney General's office for the dispute.
Gionet, a Republican representative from Grafton District 3, has been embroiled in a legal dispute with McLeod since last year when he filed a suit against her for alleged defamation and intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The suit was spurred when McLeod allegedly sent an email to members of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, of which Gionet was a part, falsely accusing him of receiving and unsuccessfully trying to get out of a ticket issued by slain Franconia Police Cpl. Bruce McKay. The committee had unanimously voted a bill to rename part of a road in McKay's memory as inexpedient to legislate, and McLeod saw the assumed facts as a conflict of interest.
When Gionet brought the email to light, pursuing the issue in the press, and allegedly sought to have McLeod fired from her job as Executive Director of the North Country Home Consortium – a charge Gionet denies – McLeod filed a countersuit against Gionet.
Before becoming speaker of the house late last year, O'Brien served as Gionet's attorney. In November, he sought to convince the Attorney General's office that Gionet's legal defense should be covered by the state under RSA 99-D:2, which states that current and former public officials have the right to seek legal counsel, or compensation for legal counsel, from the Attorney General for claims brought against them "seeking equitable relief or claiming damages for the negligent or wrongful acts" for actions committed "while acting within the scope of official duty for the state and that such acts were not wanton or reckless." This is the statute Gionet invokes when requesting counsel for the civil claims brought against him by McLeod, and for the reimbursement of the legal fees associated with the filing of the petition.
The Attorney General denied the request, saying that Gionet was acting outside his duties as a public official, and that all the events in question happened following the vote on the renaming of the road, and were unrelated. Gionet's new counsel, Ed Mosca, who also works part-time as house counsel, has appealed the decision on his behalf.
"At all relevant times, Petitioner was a State Representative," states Gionet's petition for defense/indemnification to the governor and executive council.
McLeod is not making claims against Gionet as a private citizen, argues Mosca, but as a public official. Mosca points to McLeod's claims of violations of state and civil rights as examples of this, saying that a private citizen can't deprive someone else of state or federal rights. This point seems to be the crux of Gionet's petition, and simultaneously the weak point for critics of it.
Democrats lead the crusade against O'Brien, claiming that the request is unethical and that funds should not be diverted away from job creation, but Gionet said that the criticism is just a ploy on the Democrats' part to divert the Republican agenda.
"O'Brien and our party are trying to focus on trying to create jobs and detract taxes, and they're trying to distract from that," said Gionet, adding that the House is in a time of unrest as legislators struggle to make up the state's $800 million deficit. Gionet said the charges are an effort to blindside the speaker and divert the Republicans' plans – something Gionet doesn't think will happen.
"He's doing a terrific job as a speaker," he said.
While many – including Gionet – are presenting this as a partisan issue, McLeod's lawyer, Ken Barnes, argues that is not the case.
"It just isn't Democrats versus Republicans," said Barnes. "My client is a private citizen. [Gionet] wasn't trying to harm her because she was a Democrat."
Regardless, Barnes disagrees with Gionet and his legal counsel's reasoning.
"I think it's shocking that Representative O'Brien and Attorney Mosca and Representative Gionet are asking the state to shell out money to pay for his liability for actions that Representative Gionet committed on his own time."
Ultimately, the Executive Council has the power to uphold or overturn the Attorney General's initial finding. It meets today to decide the issue.