Friday, September 24, 2021

Stealing Power: Christopher Boldt Helps Municipalities in New Hampshire Squeeze Utilities For More Tax Dollars

“I am the usurper. I am the snake. I'm the bad guy!”

“It's been said before that there's not that much difference between the theater and the law. We each have our script, we each have our audience you know whether it's a judge or jury or a client or a zoning board of adjustment.”

Quotes By Christopher Boldt

Article By: Rich Bergeron

     Christopher Boldt did not take long to figure out how his new home state really works. New Hampshire simply can't function properly under current circumstances without property taxes. Boldt soon realized that if he could find a way to help towns and cities he represented generate lots of property taxes, it would give town officials an extra incentive to keep him on the payroll. 

     This inevitably led Chris Boldt to partner with a polarizing figure named George "Skip" Sansoucy

     A 1998 Wall Street Journal piece outlines how Sansoucy managed to become a thorn in the side of utility companies due to his unique method of assessing their properties: 

"Mr. Sansoucy has attacked the arcane details of property-tax assessment and convinced tax boards and judges that his way -- which favors towns instead of the traditional methods that favor utilities -- makes more sense. With Mr. Sansoucy's help, some towns have tripled the amount they collect from electric utilities in property taxes, which in a state without an income tax is critical to funding basic local needs, from roads to schools."

     It's an easy game to play when the opponent is a huge financial concern, and any municipality can play the victim card by saying these utilities have not been stepping up to the plate to pay "their fair share." These utilities had been so used to not having anyone fight back that they were supposedly able to get away with unjustifiably low property assessments for their properties and rights of way. Boldt and Sansoucy set out to change the landscape for those utility operators. If they were successful, those deep pocket interests would have to trudge uphill when fighting tax abatement requests and face almost certain defeat every time. This new team tackled all appeals by doing whatever they could to validate the Sansoucy method of assessing the properties in question.

     By 2013 they were publicly speaking as members of the same team with the same mission in this small community newspaper piece which ended with this passage:

The question that should be asked is are utility properties being valued like other properties in the state and are they being valued at their market value and what they would sell for, said Boldt.

Use of the 83-F report for other than its intention has "an impact on the whole state, in large part because the methodology used in the 83-F report right now is leaving millions on the table and makes no sense," said Boldt.

"It's millions for the state under 83-F alone, but also millions for various municipalities," he said. "Those are schools and roads, those are police officers. Anything the utilities don't pay is put onto the shoulders of all the other taxpayers."

The question might ultimately be decided by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, said Boldt.

Meanwhile, municipalities continue to get inundated.

"There's no letup in appeals," said Sansoucy. "It's a free for all."

     The utilities continually argued the costs of all the litigation would be passed on to their customers. This was secondary to the argument that they were not being taxed according to real market value determined in a fair and equitable process. Consumers either didn't feel enough of a burn from their rising utility rates or simply didn't care about a bunch of wealthy corporate folks griping about paying high taxes. For many towns and cities, citizens would benefit through much lower property taxes for their own properties. A few dollars extra each month added to the power bill would never eclipse the discount on their mortgage payments from the tax break. 

      Sansoucy, whether his methods were accurate or not, developed a Robin Hood reputation almost overnight after working on his first large scale utility assessment project. The Wall Street Journal story reported: 

"Mr. Sansoucy got into this line of work almost by accident. In 1990, the same year police charged him with stealing electricity, a lawyer asked him to help defend the town of Bow's assessments against a challenge by Public Service Co. of New Hampshire, seeking to tap his knowledge of dams and the power industry. He reluctantly agreed. It was the first step in his transformation from a failed property developer and consulting engineer into a folk hero with clients across the state.

Mr. Sansoucy consulted for Bow in a case before the state Board of Tax and Land Appeals and in two later court cases. PS New Hampshire's assets in Bow included a big coal-fired generator, a hydroelectric dam, substations and power lines. The town had assessed the properties at about $94 million. But after a town revaluation, the values for 1987 through 1990 rose to more than $300 million.

PS New Hampshire appealed, claiming a fair market value for the property of $68 million. But in a 1993 trial, a Superior Court judge not only upheld the town's values, he raised them further, to $361 million for 1990. The utility's tax bill rose from $2.7 million in 1987 to $5.2 million in 1994, after a settlement with the town took effect.

While part of the increase was the result of higher tax rates, Mr. Sansoucy's testimony had helped to show that the town had actually undervalued the utility's property. The Superior Court's decision was upheld by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in November 1994.

The Bow case put Mr. Sansoucy on the map. Suddenly, every town wanted him. With 10 employees and associates in his Rochester firm, Mr. Sansoucy credits utilities with providing him a comfortable living. "As long as they keep suing towns, and as long as they sometimes keep asking for the ridiculous," he says, "the towns are going to need somebody like me."'

     By 2018, Boldt found himself an integral member of the Commission to Study Utility Property Valuation and Recommend Legislation to Reform the Current System of Taxing Utility Property in New Hampshire. This was a way to make Sansoucy's property tax generation machine much easier to defend in court by bringing the state itself into the fold. Boldt's name appears in the commission's final report a total of 56 times across 75 pages of material, and Sansoucy is right behind him with 46 mentions. Since they literally participated in crafting the new legislative framework on utility assessments, they in turn gained even more leverage in their coordinated effort to squeeze utility operators for more tax money to help the towns they represented. Thanks to their self-serving input, inflated and inaccurate assessments would become much harder for utility owners to challenge. 

     Though it is most certainly unique, Sansoucy's utility assessment methodology is by no means invincible or ironclad. The town of Hampton, New Hampshire found that out the hard way when Sansoucy decided to backtrack on an inflated assessment for the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant. A Seacoast Online article describes the resulting lawsuit as follows: 

"The town filed the lawsuit March 16 in Rockingham Superior Court against appraiser George Sansoucy and his business, George Sansoucy, PE, LLC, alleging he deceived the town in 2013 when he said he could defend an appraisal of $33,007,293 for Seabrook Station’s utility property in Hampton. He was hired by the town to assist in defending against an abatement filed by NextEra Energy, which owns the power plant, with the state Board of Tax and Land Appeals.

Sansoucy allegedly told the town he could defend the $33 million figure based on an appraisal he did for the town of Seabrook in 2011, Hampton’s hired attorney, George Moore, wrote in the suit. Sansoucy was allegedly unavailable to meet with the town’s attorney in 2014 to prepare for the abatement hearing scheduled for that year. Four weeks before the hearing, Sansoucy allegedly told the town he in fact could only testify to the assessment of approximately $20 million or less. He allegedly lowered the number again before the hearing, telling town officials he could not support a value greater than $10 million, the suit states.

The town was forced as a result to negotiate with NextEra for a $15 million assessment, less than half the originally appraised value for the utility property in Hampton, according to the suit. Moore wrote that cost the town a loss of more than $2 million in tax revenue from 2011 until 2020."

     The appraisal expert was suddenly not capable of testifying in the case, despite similar agreements he negotiated in the past with Boldt to do just that in response to abatement appeals from utilities. Sansoucy simply could not justify an over inflated number he proposed for the property. It turned out that he failed to consider crucial valuation factors like the tax exempt status of parts of the property. Instead of facing the music on the stand, Sansoucy argued his contract with Hampton was only for "general consulting and testimonial services." His attorney claimed that contract did not cover any services related directly to the nuclear power plant. 

      Sansoucy definitely started out on the right foot in Bow, New Hampshire with his first major consulting gig involving assessing a utility property. However, he hasn't always been able to keep the money flowing when it comes to other utility properties in town. Consider the case of Merrimack Station, a coal-fired power plant run by Eversource. A superior court judge agreed with the utility company in 2016 despite Sansoucy testifying in that case on behalf of the town. The judge made it clear in his ruling that it came down to the experts when he wrote: 

“The court believes that Mr. Kelly’s analysis is more credible than Mr. Sansoucy’s.”

     There were certainly some major setbacks in the Boldt/Sansoucy push to promote larger tax bills paid by utility owners, but their successes hinged on some very favorable appeals conditions for most of the abatement requests. Essentially, those who wanted abatements on high tax bills could not simply prove the assessment decision was incorrect. The Board of Tax and Land Appeals (BTLA) explained it this way in one decision Boldt and Sansoucy helped their respective town clients secure

In reviewing the board’s findings, “our task is not to determine whether we would have found differently than did the board, or to reweigh the evidence, but rather to determine whether the findings are supported by competent evidence in the record.” Appeal of Sutton, 141 N.H. 348, 350 (1996) (quotation and brackets omitted). “When faced with conflicting [expert] testimony, a trier of fact is free to accept or reject an expert’s testimony, in whole or in part.” LLK Trust v. Town of Wolfeboro, 159 N.H. 734, 740 (2010); see also Appeal of Pennichuck Water Works, 160 N.H. at 41. We will uphold the trier of fact’s factual findings unless the evidence does not support them or they are erroneous as a matter of law. See Town of Atkinson v. Malborn Realty Trust, 164 N.H. 62, 66 (2012). 

     This explanation means it really is often all about the credibility of the experts. Also, to overturn a decision, the evidence that supported the original decision has to be shown to be corrupted or somehow improper. That's a high burden to meet for the challenger of an inflated assessment. Another appeal Boldt participated in defending against explained the burden this way: 

 “To prevail, the [appellant] must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the BTLA's decision was clearly unreasonable or unlawful.” Town of Charlestown, 166 N.H. at 499;  see also RSA 541:13. “We will not set aside or vacate a BTLA decision except for errors of law, unless we are satisfied, by a clear preponderance of the evidence before us, that such order is unjust or unreasonable.” Town of Charlestown, 166 N.H. at 499–500 (quotation and brackets omitted);  see also RSA 541:13.

     The same appeal decision, filed in 2017, concluded with a critical paragraph that allowed Boldt and others who recognized the revenue possibilities of the Sansoucy method to bring their concerns to the direct attention of the legislature:

To the extent that the discrepancy between the DRA's assessments and the municipalities' assessments of NHEC's property is caused by methodological conflicts in how the DRA and municipalities are appraising utility property, we note that the legislature has provided no guidance on the methodology that should be used to determine a utility property's full and true value. See RSA 75:1;  Appeal of Pennichuck Water Works, 160 N.H. at 38. Furthermore, the decision to adopt a uniform methodology for valuing utility property belongs to the legislature, not this court. See Appeal of Public Serv. Co. of N.H., ––– N.H. at –––– (decided June 2, 2017) (slip. op. at 16).

    So, after decades of there being no defined uniform standards for utility appraisal and so many cases brought to the court's attention because of this fact, suddenly a court was suggesting it was not their place to remedy the situation. In legal terms, this decision "opened the door" for Boldt and Sansoucy to officially make their practices into formal policy.

     Boldt confined his efforts on this front to the state of New Hampshire, making income along the way and earning a hefty paycheck for all the major appeals, whether he won or lost each particular case. Sansoucy was more of a traveling grifter and would go just about anywhere to inflate assessments. He could take home an office worker's yearly salary for a particular gig, even in a case the municipality settled unfavorably

     The news reports about Sansoucy's questionable methods did not deter most towns and cities he represented, but at least one selectman reacted to a negative article published in the Union Leader in 2019 by calling for Boldt to find the town of Chester, NH a new utility assessment expert

    "Selectman D’Angelo: • The Union Leader recently printed an article on George Sansoucy, the Town’s current Utility Assessor. It is likely that the Town will need a new one; he contacted Attorney Chris Boldt of Donahue, Tucker & Ciandella, PLLC for suggestions."

     It appears that the money raked in thanks to Sansoucy's methods provides for so much New Hampshire infrastructure that his worst mistakes and most ambitious failed inflation attempts don't ruffle enough feathers to force him to change his ways. 

     Selectman De'Angelo's above-cited efforts to distance the town of Chester from Sansoucy obviously failed. The town recently lost an appeal in a perfect example of how Boldt and Sansoucy still get paid even when they're wrong. The only people losing out are the utility companies and their customers paying for all the big law firm work being done to challenge all these inflated appraisals. There's not enough people getting seriously screwed over by this scheme to initiate any kind of public outrage over what's going on. 

      Another reason Sansoucy faces such little accountability for going overboard is the fact that he is a smooth talker who knows how to handle sworn testimony. This interrogation he faced at a 2007 hearing is an interesting read if you want to know all about how this guy operatesHe endured a number of questions about his lack of qualifications and certifications and particularly his lack of any significant work on behalf of utility companies. 

     Could he truly represent himself as an unbiased player in the process when he built his reputation and career off siphoning so many tax dollars out of the deep pockets of utility owners? He couldn't recall at the time if he ever testified regarding any valuation on behalf of a utility company. It is still very difficult to find a single case in which the Sansoucy firm actually went to bat to attempt to lower a valuation for a utility. 

     I did find one very interesting recent exception to the rule, however. Sansoucy's primary expert Glenn Walker performed the valuation on behalf of Island Light and Power. The catch here is that this valuation on behalf of the utility still managed to be an ideal development for the town. It was such a favorable situation for the town that the low valuation resulted in a shareholder filing a successful lawsuit regarding the sale of the assets under very questionable circumstances. The Block Island Times reported: 

"After explaining how the town had formed the Electric Utility Task Group, members of which became the Board of Directors of BIPCo after the town’s stock acquisition, and then resigned to become members of the BIUD, he [the judge] wrote: “In what arm’s length transaction does a seller, while negotiating a purchase price, provide the buyer with its expert’s opinion of value? Surrogates for the Town were on both sides of this transaction.”'

     So, at the end of the day Sansoucy's firm will gladly find a way to devalue a utility assessment if it means helping a friendly interest take that utility over at a rock bottom price. If you want to delve deeper into the alliance formed between Boldt and Sansoucy (BS for short), just Google "George Sansoucy, Christopher Boldt."  There is really an endless supply of material there. Yet somehow utility companies have not been able to cry foul loudly enough to stop the bleeding and deter Boldt and Sansoucy from capitalizing on their "fair share" narrative. 

     The inherent resulting legal bribery of other municipal taxpayers who get subsidized low taxes paid for by the "victims" also protects and insulates both men. I have not yet found any record of serious retribution or discipline of any kind leveled at either Sansoucy or Boldt for going too far and extracting too many tax dollars out of this utility assessment racket. Rather than the system ADAPTING to shut down and prevent such shady operations, the state instead ADOPTED some of the questionable methodology Boldt and Sansoucy instigated and perpetuated. Fact is indeed stranger than fiction.

     This blinding example of how screwed up our legal system can be sometimes also plainly establishes the golden rule of investigative reporting: FOLLOW THE MONEY! 

     Whatever the future holds for these two characters, they probably won't suffer too badly from all the economic inflation worries facing the nation. Inflation is ultimately their most profitable specialty and will likely make both of their jobs exponentially easier. Think about that inconvenient truth the next time you open your power bill.

Read and Share the entire Christopher Boldt Series:

The Plan B Justice Group: To Be or Not To Be... Corrupt to the Core, The Christopher Boldt Series (Part One)

The Plan B Justice Group: Deep in the Heart of Texas a Scandal is Born, Chris Boldt Plays a Supporting Role (Part Two)

The Plan B Justice Group: Christopher Boldt's Texas-Sized Mistakes Follow Him to New Hampshire (Part Three)

The Plan B Justice Group: Stealing Power: Christopher Boldt Helps Municipalities in New Hampshire Squeeze Utilities For More Tax Dollars (Part Four)

The Plan B Justice Group: Tax Breaks for Town Officials in Berlin Raise Questions About Christopher Boldt's Lack of Legal Ethics (Part Five)

The Plan B Justice Group: Rigging the Rates Against the Deepest Pockets Doesn't Stop at Utilities for the Boldt and Sansoucy Gravy Train (Part Six)

The Plan B Justice Group: Gorham's Businesses Struggle Under Financial Pressure from Town's Deliberate Property Tax Gouging Scheme (Part Seven)

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