NH Democrats: Sununu steering emergency contracts to political allies

Published: May. 19, 2020 at 5:18 PM EDT
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Where and how New Hampshire spends its COVID-19 relief funds is feeding an ongoing debate in the Granite State about government oversight.

Democrats recently took the Sununu administration to court over how federal recovery money was being spent. They said the Republican governor was circumventing traditional legislative oversight and approval. But the judge sided with Sununu, essentially giving him the power to distribute emergency funds how he saw fit.

A similar question is now being raised about the awarding of state contracts that are usually approved by New Hampshire's Executive Council.

"I think it is really important to understand the speed in which we had to go," said Lori Shibinette, the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, who has often flanked Sununu at his press briefings in Concord.

She has been in charge, in large part, of facilitating state contracts during the coronavirus pandemic for things like PPE shipments.

"It absolutely is not the norm. Typically we always go through a competitive bidding process," Shibinette said.

State contracts in New Hampshire are usually bid out with approval from New Hampshire's five-member Executive Council but Shibinette says the current state emergency required immediate action.

"I've been very lucky, Governor Sununu has empowered me to make those decisions," she said.

But some are questioning whether those decisions are politically motivated. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, tweeted about an NHPR article that highlighted two contracts in particular. Feltes, who is running for governor, said the contracts are going to the Sununu's political allies.

"Taxpayers need to know where their money is going," said Holly Shulman, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "I mean, the reality is we don't know, because Chris Sununu hasn't been transparent at all around where millions of dollars of taxpayers money is going."

Sununu has been asked about the contracts in recent days. He has brushed off the questions as politically motivated, but also said that his administration has been taking extra steps to provide transparency.

"Anything we could provide, we did-- 250 pages is pretty robust-- but most of that was all available online," Sununu said.

But Shulman says the decisions that led to the contracts are also concerning Democrats across the state.

"A governor has chosen to do this behind closed doors without answering any questions," she said.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Shibinette, who was tasked with making those decisions, says it all comes down to saving lives.

"It really minimizes the amount of time and work and dedication that my team at DHHS has put into procuring these contracts and services to even imply that politics plays a role in it," she said.

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