Friday, January 26, 2024

Secret Meetings and Shady Motives: How a Small Town Coup Unraveled in Haverhill, NH


By: Rich Bergeron
The original Disney animation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland always captivated me as a child. I later learned in formal English classes that Carroll had a natural fascination with the principles of logic. The fantastical, whimsical tea party Alice stumbles into in the scene depicted above is actually what they call an "un-birthday" party. 

      The "un-birthday" concept is a perfect parallel to the "non-meetings" the Haverhill Board of Selectmen engaged in with attorneys from Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella (DTC) last year. Framing these secretive, undocumented sessions as crucial to solving the supposed ongoing tax rate setting crisis, Woodsville sympathizers actually used the "non-meeting" designation to quietly encourage their new attorneys to facilitate the removal of Haverhill Town Manager Brigitte Codling. It was classic subterfuge and it shows through in multiple emails sent back and forth between DTC Attorneys Christopher Hawkins, Eric Maher and Christopher Boldt. 

     Hawkins specifically also maintained direct contact with his former colleague Attorney Lynette Macomber throughout his allegedly legitimate representation of Haverhill. Macomber is still representing Woodsville. She appeared recently at a hearing in Concord to lobby against a bill meant to impose strict audit conditions on the district (SB 448). She appeared the week before as the district's attorney in an appeal that is still pending. Woodsville clearly has no problem paying her to cover all the legal bases. Hawkins even asked her at one point to send her appeal paperwork over so he could review it. 

     The story of Alice in Wonderland turned logic upside down in many ways, twisted it in others, and made a fun and entertaining story of how things would be if our world was not built on logic at all. This article takes our readers to another world of topsy turvy logic in real life. It's a place where trained lawyers do things backwards on purpose. Procedures and processes are all out of whack. You have wandered into a Woodsville tea party, folks, so get ready to move down, even though there's unlimited empty chairs waiting to be filled in the dining room. 


      A formal waiver in a situation of conflict for an attorney is designed so that an attorney and a client can move forward with official documentation that certifies any potential conflict of interest issue is behind them. A conflict of interest exists if there is a significant risk that a lawyer's action on behalf of one client will materially limit the lawyer's effectiveness in representing another client in a different case. DTC Attorney Christopher Hawkins had a textbook conflict example in front of him. He had all the formal training to recognize it and refuse to represent the board. 

     Instead, Hawkins pressed on. He even took it a step further and emailed his colleague Attorney Eric Maher on January 11, 2023: "With your permission, I'd like to put this matter down as my origination. I believe this matter came to us as a result of my prior representation of Woodsville. I say that recognizing that you will do a lot of the work as the municipal law expert. I'm happy to discuss this with you." Law firm origination credit plans are designed to reward the attorney who brought in the new client. Typically, the originating lawyer will receive a percentage or set dollar amount per client they bring in. 

      Hawkins also emailed Maher on the same day to tell him it might be a good idea to get the town's permission to speak with his former Adversary in the Woodsville case at Drummond Woodsum. "We may need to have a come-to-Jesus with Demetrio Aspiras," wrote Hawkins. "We need the Board's authorization to discuss these issues with him." The issues he was referring to were related to Aspiras' legal conclusion that the Woodsville Fire Department was not legally formed. That was just one basis the DRA used to disallow the contested warrant articles. 

     Attorney Hawkins was so darn eager to get to work for the conflicted board members that he was willing to turn the normal and logical waiver-before-retention process on its head. Rather than get the waiver handled before any formal services were rendered, Hawkins and his colleagues generated $3,896 in fees prior to securing all the right signatures on the above-linked waiver agreement. Here's where the logic makes no sense if these are expert attorneys making these maneuvers. How could you overlook the most basic tenet of avoiding conflict and forget to submit the signed waiver before any real work began? Hawkins also repeatedly mentioned work he performed for the board/town at no charge, which is typically something attorneys only do for close friends or charitable enterprises. 

      To make matters worse, there was never a recorded quorum vote by the board of selectmen to approve the conflict waiver itself. That means Robbins was not duly authorized by any vested town authority to sign that document on behalf of the town, other than his own perceived authority as vice chairman of the Haverhill Select Board. 
      The rules are clear, and there needs to be a written conflict waiver in place prior to any representation being allowed in any conflict scenario. If there is no valid and enforceable waiver, there can be no representation legally in such a conflict scenario. Even though it appears the Haverhill Select Board members actually sought out Hawkins because they wanted his conflicted advice, they couldn't get the most basic paperwork submitted on time because they had to get then Board Chairman Fred Garofalo out of the way. Garofalo was providing a little too much resistance to the plan. Prior to his resignation from the board he had repeatedly refused to sign any hiring paperwork for DTC. Garofalo has since passed away.

      Just a few months prior to his death, Garofalo spoke at the May 22, 2023 Haverhill Board of Selectman meeting as a member of the audience this time. He took direct issue with the "non-meetings" held with DTC attorneys under the guise of getting the town's tax rate set. He specifically mentioned the fact that Selectman Steve Robbins had all the hiring paperwork for DTC sent to his personal home address instead of any official town address. He called the "non-meetings" held with DTC and without Codling present illegal. Finally, he berated the one board member left who participated in those "secret" meetings: Kevin Knapp. 

      Before sitting down, the former board chair had one last poignant thought to share with Selectman Knapp: 

       "The proper and expedient thing to do would be to resign," Garofalo told Knapp to the clapping of a few audience members in support of the idea. Check out the full meeting video with the following link and pass code (Garofalo's remarks begin at 37:10 mark):

Pass Code: ZMR8PHg3

      Garofalo is a man who was caught in the crossfire of a turf war he didn't want to be involved in. Watching him during prior meetings that he chaired would give any objective person the impression that Fred really knew all the procedure, all the policies, and all the responsibilities that governed his role. He also seemed to enjoy his board work immensely, as if it was borne out of pure love for his community. He was often left out on a limb by the Woodsville implants on the board who put this series of Nixon-esque dirty tricks in motion. Before they could find a way to terminate Town Manager Codling's contract, the conflicted board members eventually realized they had to oust Fred first. 

       It's only natural that such a ruthless bunch of attorneys and board members was so willing to put a dedicated old politician out to pasture to further their unethical crusade. They simply did not care who or what got in their way. This was their big chance to leverage the stacked deck they had inside the board. Forcing Fred's resignation was a point of no return of sorts as much as it was an ethical and moral line the co-conspirators never should have crossed. 

     At some point along the way in all this, possibly around the time Woodsville's own Steve Robbins took over leadership of the board in Fred's absence, all the rule books went flying out the window. Robbins--an executive level member of the Woodsville Fire Department at the same time he was a Haverhill selectman--would have had a natural bias toward supporting the Haverhill to Woodsville funding. He directly benefited from that funding as an employee of the Woodsville Fire Department. 

      Robbins recently posted and removed a comment from Facebook in which he called this site a joke. I contacted him through Facebook Messenger, and Robbins told me, "I will do just fine in the court if I get the opportunity." That's a big "if" at this point. Robbins later insisted he did not lie to the public during the course of his coordination with DTC. 

     "What I have is a lifelong history of GIVING to my community, and a lifelong record of integrity," Robbins wrote. "You have nothing. I have not lied, keep believing yourself."

      If Robbins speaks the truth and this case goes to trial, then we are in for a Wild West style shootout full of loaded words on the witness stand between the Woodsville Sympathizers and the DTC attorneys. It's going to come down to a he said/she said attorney/client free-for-all if this goes to a full-fledged trial with testimony. Robbins and his colleagues are on the public record attesting they never directed DTC attorneys to work around Codling. DTC attorneys are now on the record officially claiming that's exactly what the board told them to do. 

      Did DTC attorneys keep the Town Manager in the dark at the direction of the board? Or did DTC attorneys simply come up with that strategy on their own? Steve Robbins has his signature on all the crucial paperwork. The answers to those ominous questions will come out in a very ugly, publicly embarrassing manner if Steve Robbins ever has to take the stand. Robbins had a great deal of personal interaction with Attorney Christopher Hawkins throughout this saga. 

      Robbins and the rest of the board didn't even take DTC's advice to seek independent counsel to review the waiver agreement Robbins signed so late in the game, days after the resolution of the rate setting issue they were supposedly hired to deal with. Robbins obviously trusted Hawkins implicitly and wasn't going to check his work with anyone. 

     The waiver issue is just the tip of the iceberg here. It is aside from the fact that Robbins communicated through texts with Hawkins in February of 2023, referencing signing the final retention agreement. If Robbins mailed the final signed agreement back to the firm on February 9th, 2023, it would be nearly a month after the January 15th date of the conflict waiver getting signed by Robbins. 

     As it is, the original waiver provided by DTC was packaged with the formal engagement letter that Steve Robbins signed and dated January 31st, 2023, which means the majority of what DTC later billed the town for was already completed before any governing signed agreement was in place. There is no retroactive language in the agreement itself explaining it covered work done prior to the agreement being signed and delivered. The DTC logic bus is driving in reverse again on this one. You don't have to go to law school to figure out that a representation/retention agreement ought to be secured before any actual formal representation begins. It was truly a "first the sentence, then the verdict" Queen of Hearts maneuver by the DTC attorneys. 
     This makes both the waiver and the retention agreement hopelessly late. There are deadlines and particular processes in the legal profession that are dependent on timing for a reason. Lawyers live and die on timing in certain cases. Yet, it looks like these DTC attorneys didn't really care about chronological order at all, as if time itself was moving backward in their world. 

      The iceberg is even bigger than you think when it comes to how hopelessly defunct this legal representation arrangement really was. The board even publicly stated that there was "no contract" at their January 17, 2023 Select Board Meeting: (See page 10) 

     "The Board noted there is no contract. Vice Chair Robbins said there might be more correspondence. He believes the Select Board and Administration need to discuss law firms in general." 

      Yet again, Robbins is taking point at this meeting on the status of the attorneys and how they will be used. He just ignores the guidelines he agreed to follow by even accepting his service as a town board member. He has at this point also already gone against his own suggestion to discuss law firms with Town Administration by even attempting to work with DTC attorneys without Codling's consent or inclusion. He provided the most deficient leadership possible to the board in a time of need by maintaining that working relationship with DTC's most conflicted attorney under such false pretenses for so long. And all the while he is willing to admit there is no contract. 

     Usually it's filing deadlines that most attorneys and clients have to be wary of. This time it was a looming political deadline that required getting all the ducks in a row in time for town elections. Even if it was as late as late could be, like the white rabbit himself, Hawkins and Robbins had to get all the retention paperwork squared away and neatly arranged in case elections changed the makeup of the board. 

       Robbins indeed wound up losing his seat. Another text he sent Attorney Hawkins summarizes how he felt about that: 

      The billing statements submitted by DTC are incriminating themselves, especially if you look at some of the firm's final tasks. Hawkins even included 10 hours of travel and attendance time for the Haverhill Town Meeting on March 18, 2023. It is the only item on the bill where the words (no charge) appear next to the line item. It seems like a lot of commitment for an attorney purporting to have no conflict. 

      A prior trip to Haverhill appeared on the town's bill from DTC directly across from two $1,600 charges, each for eight hour increments of preparation, travel, meetings and conferences. Hawkins and Maher made the trip on January 27, 2023 to speak "with Haverhill Board of Selectmen to discuss DRA and other issues." Hawkins also requests expenses of 66 cents per mile for a trip to Haverhill to see Steve Robbins in particular on January 31, 2023. These were trips taken long after the tax rate issue was done and dusted. 

      One of the most interesting line items in the whole document appears under the date of February 2, 2023. It is the $220 that Hawkins billed for: "Telephone calls with two members of Board of Selectmen regarding threatened lawsuits; email communication with Board member regarding immunity and civil claims against public officials; preliminary review of Primex insurance policy." 

     The next day Hawkins bills another $200 for an hour of conversations with one board member about "immunity and civil liability" and another board member "regarding timeline of events and public statement." It seems that throughout this stage of the saga, DTC attorneys were spending more time on speech writing and helping town officials avoid personal lawsuits than they were on providing sound legal advice to the town itself.

     The conflict the board thought they wanted eventually came back to bite them in the end. It spread like a fever that was fatal to future political ambitions. Board Members Katie Williams and Michael Graham didn't last much longer than Robbins. Kevin Knapp became the lone holdout from the group, and even he recently faced intense pressure to step down from Board Chairman Phil Blanchard. 

      Despite Blanchard's lecture advising Knapp to "get done" happening in a non-public session, the minutes were not sealed. That left the video of the session open for public viewing. It is certainly must see TV for anyone following this story. 

Pass Code: %r7eeR3E

      Knapp did not take his colleague's advice. He also did not show up at the next board meeting that Former Board Member Matt Bjelobrk appeared at to call Knapp's conduct into question. It was a clear case of shirking his duties at the same time he was trying to show his commitment to stay in office by not resigning. 

     So, like Nixon hints at above, the anti-Codling crusaders in this legal/political cabal were so overwhelmed by hatred and animosity that they destroyed themselves by trying to break all the rules to throw her out of office. They all sacrificed their integrity to obtain some short-lived victory in what would ultimately amount to a losing battle. Their main adversary was always one step ahead of them. 

     Even if their bills were somehow deemed justified, DTC attorneys made a complete mess of things instead of doing the board or the town any real service in the long run. Their own horrible guidance created a great deal of extra work for these attorneys that they brazenly expected the town to pay for. They bungled every step of the process they were supposed to be masters of, and they still wanted a big, fat paycheck for their piss poor performance. The vaulting arrogance and ignorance of these slithering solicitors is just astounding.   


     One of the most crucial dialogues on the Woodsville vs. Haverhill funding dispute occurred at the September 26, 2022 Select Board Meeting. (pass code: 2Aj=yF58) The best part of the footage begins around 1 hour and 10 minutes into the recording. 

      Woodsville's champions on the board put up quite a fight at this meeting for the effort to ask the DRA to reverse their position on warrant articles funding the district being disallowed. Board Member Michael Graham was the most outspoken selectman involved in the debate. At times he seemed to cross the line between politician and lobbyist. 

      Haverhill Resident Lorraine Prescott began stirring up the commentary by asking the board outright: what benefit does Haverhill enjoy by providing Woodsville their department funding. Steve Robbins participated in some of the back and forth and replied to Prescott's question about his duty to "uphold the spirit of the town meeting form of government." It was a convenient outcry for the board members pressing the interests of Woodsville taxpayers at the expense of Haverhill taxpayers. 

      It was fitting when a remote viewer chimed in to remind everyone that--if the funding continues--it is actually Haverhill taxpayers paying for two highway and fire departments while Woodsville only has to pay for one of each. 

     The entire argument of needing to follow the will of the voters who approved the warrant articles also neglects to tell the full story of the "vote" that actually approved the latest contested Woodsville funding. It happened during the height of Covid infection season, during a winter storm, and there was extremely limited attendance at that town meeting. Town Counsel was not able to speak to explain their legal analysis of the articles. On top of this, town election official Regis Roy repeatedly told voters how to vote on the contested warrant articles, indicating that voters should approve them. 

      Roy received no firm punishment for her transgressions even though the vote went the way she obviously wanted it to. The election results themselves were always suspect as a result of this electioneering incident tainting the vote. The investigation's conclusion says it all: 

      "Based on our investigation, we find that your conduct was grossly inappropriate and antithetical to your duties as an election official. As an election official you swore an oath to faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties of your office and act consistent with the rules and regulations of the New Hampshire Constitution and state law. The evidence concerning your advocacy at the polls indicates that you failed in that fundamental responsibility and ignored your obligations to the voters to whom you owed a duty as an elected official." 

      Board Chairman Fred Garofalo took a view he was outnumbered on and tried to inject some basic reasoning into the whole back and forth at the September 26, 2022 Haverhill Select Board Meeting. Nobody mentioned the electioneering investigation into Roy and the consequences her vote suggestions had on the final outcome. 

       Perhaps the most compelling remarks that come from these passionate exchanges between the audience and the board about Woodsville is a particularly concerning bit of input provided by Robert Clegg, Jr., a well-experienced state legislator who passed away last August. Clegg explained that the town's lawyer should have been able to talk to town meeting voters about the legal issues swirling around the warrant articles:  

     "The law doesn't allow you to fund the municipality of Woodsville with Haverhill taxpayer money," said Clegg.  

      Clegg also pointed out an ethical "quandary" faced by board members who might benefit from their voting on how to proceed with the DRA. "If you benefit more than anybody else, then you have to step down," Clegg cautioned. So, before Selectman Steve Robbins ever had an opportunity to bring DTC attorneys into the picture with the stroke of a late pen, he was indirectly and publicly warned that he also had a textbook conflict when it came to the Woodsville funding. 

      It was also obvious from the September 26th board meeting that Board Chairman Fred Garofalo was not keen to go along with the voters' intent argument without looking deeply into the illegal article theory. It is no coincidence that soon after this very contentious hearing, the earliest line item on the DTC invoices is recorded on September 29, 2022 By DTC Attorney Eric Maher. It is the only entry for the 2022 calendar year and reads: 

     "Review materials provided by the Town; Review RSA Chapter 21; Attention to decision of DRA; Attention to warrant articles; Conference via email with Attorney Hawkins; Extended email to BOS member regarding response to materials provided; Review RSA Chapters 32 and 37; Review Town's Annual Report; Review Town Warrants and District Warrants; Extended conference with Attorney Hawkins regarding the same." 

     Hawkins and Maher obviously did not have a conflict waiver or retention agreement in place at the time the above referenced work was completed, allegedly on behalf of "the Town." Hawkins also explained repeatedly that he had no conflict as long as the board did not ask him to take a position on the Woodsville funding. The reality is Hawkins was always trying to find ways to take a pro-Woodsville approach during his entire term of purported engagement by "the Town" of Haverhill. 

     Woodsville Administrator Kevin Shelton and Woodsville Commissioner Steve Wheeler were also at that same September 26, 2022 Select Board Meeting. They argued vociferously for the board to make a motion to appeal the DRA's denial of their warrant articles as soon as the Haverhill tax rate was set. Prior to lobbying in public for the board to make that motion, Shelton himself griped aloud about how expensive it would be for Woodsville to appeal that DRA decision that effectively cut off their funding. The two Woodsville politicos proved above all that they both knew exactly what had to be done in that particular scenario at that particular time. Their back-and-forth banter with the board at that meeting is proof-positive that Woodsville's current appeal effort is a complete waste of time, money, and government resources. 

These days, Shelton and Wheeler seem to be playing Tweedledee and Tweedledum about the proper procedure they were supposed to follow to have legitimate standing to even file an effective appeal.     


     Haverhill Town Manager Brigitte Codling acted quickly when she first discovered Attorney Hawkins was working with the town's board of selectmen. She wrote an email to DTC Attorney Christopher Boldt on January 12, 2023 explaining: 

     "We have heard that Chris Hawkins, who represented the Woodsville District in their lawsuit against the Town of Haverhill, has been retained, by the Haverhill Board of Selectmen without my input or involvement. This is very concerning, as that is a very clear conflict of interest. We assumed that DTC would acknowledge that clear conflict and select an attorney on staff that had not had directly involved with that very contentious issue between the Town and the District. I do appreciate, as Haverhill's Town Manager, the willingness for DTC to assist us with the Tax Rate issue, but do not believe it is ethical for Chris Hawkins to represent the Town."

     Boldt's initials appear in the DTC billing statements next to a "background and strategy" line item for $76, indicating a conference he had with Hawkins just a few days later on January 16th, 2023. So, rather than acknowledging the conflict barrier and assigning another attorney, Boldt appears to have ignored the Town Manager's concerns and moved forward with advising Hawkins how to proceed. 

      Over the next few weeks, much of the DTC billing entries covered Right to Know request work they needed to complete. The DTC attorneys attempted to bill the town of Haverhill over $1,000 on work directly related to Right-to-Know requests and concerns. Much of the material the firm would have to give up as a result of right to know requests is spread throughout our reports on this site. All of it is on the Haverhill town Web-site

      Both the town manager and her assistant repeatedly reached out to DTC attorneys to ask about the progress on their conflict check. They were constantly left guessing. Showing a complete disdain for the logical course of action in such a scenario, DTC attorneys and conflicted board members fully embraced the conflict parameters instead of avoiding them. Rather than being satisfied with just a one-sided conflict, Attorney Christopher Hawkins invited Selectman Steve Robbins to live in the conflict cabin with him. That way they could enjoy matching conflicted interests on both sides of the attorney/client relationship. 

       It didn't take long for Robbins to be accused of profiting from his position on the board. He sent this text message to Attorney Hawkins in early March:

      Attorney Hawkins was now signaling that he would provide personal legal advice to Robbins on a matter outside the purview of a traditional attorney/client relationship between a firm and a town board. Just the mere fact that these allegations concerned Robbins enough to reach out to Hawkins shows there was enough impetus for Robbins to recuse himself from all discussions related to the Woodsville warrant articles at the heart of the DRA tax rate issue. Instead, he took leadership over many of those discussions and the process of attempting to legally hire the one attorney who would be most likely to fight to keep those warrant articles funded. 

      Robbins now obviously feels confident that his testimony will exonerate him from any blame here. Even an armchair lawyer can see the hopelessness in that approach. To quote current Board Chair Phil Blanchard in his remarks encouraging the resignation of Select Board Member Kevin Knapp: "Those lawyers are gonna tear that up. They're gonna hammer it." 

      DTC and the corrupted board members involved will have to pray they get a judge as biased and backwards as the Queen of Hearts herself if they hope to escape all accountability for this whole fiasco. Their legal defense just keeps getting "curioser and curioser."

       Recently, an open public hearing on Senate Bill 448 took place. The video is certainly worth watching. It begins around the 57:30 mark at the above link. Beyond the actual testimony, you get to see the reactions of some key audience members who likely don't even realize they are on camera. The usual suspects lined up in Woodsville's corner to speak on the pitfalls of the bill. Former Haverhill Select Board Member Matt Bjelobrk supported the bill but actually agreed with Woodsville Administrator Kevin Shelton on one point of his opposition to the bill. That was in the area of fees Woodsville would be liable for if any audit-related deadlines were missed. Shelton lamented about his district being singled out as the only municipality subject to such overbearing financial scrutiny. 

      Bjelobrk agreed it was not right that Woodsville would be the only municipality in the state to face such fees for being late with their DRA-mandated audits. "It should be something that's for all municipalities," said Bjelobrk. "It's not a bad idea." 

       Woodsville Commissioner Steve Wheeler spoke next. He ultimately argued that the state should stay out of Woodsville's affairs and noted the district has1,500 residents and not 1,000. Finally, he raised the prospect of Woodsville becoming a town of its own.  

      The DRA's Peter Roth took the quote of the day with this gem describing why Woodsville should keep enduring strict audits: "So right now at some level the fire department and the road department for at least 2022 are double funded. How that's gonna get sorted out is gonna be a problem that the department may have to look at." 

       It has been a long, winding and wild journey through the hills and valleys of these trials and tribulations involving backwards thinking and upside-down realities. Take a moment to digest the evidence and make your own conclusions. 

      Just one final thought before we adjourn until the next article: 

     "The time has come, my friends, to talk of other things, of shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings. And why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings. Calloo, callay, no work today, we're cabbages and kings!" The Walrus in Alice in Wonderland

CLICK HERE to read part one of this Haverhill/Woodsville series.

CLICK HERE to read part two of this Haverhill/Woodsville series.

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