EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 21, 2013

County attorney's office to investigate Danville selectman

Harding charged with assaulting teen

By Doug Ireland
direland@eagletribune.com

---- — DANVILLE — For months, Russell Harding has been waiting to resolve his assault case and return to the Board of Selectmen.

In early January, Harding notified the board he wouldn’t be returning until after Feb. 28. But now, his return could be much later — if it happens at all.

Harding, 35, was scheduled to appear in 10th Circuit Court in Plaistow this afternoon for his trial on two misdemeanor assault charges. He was charged last summer with grabbing a teenage boy during Danville’s Movie Night and slamming his head against a table.

The two misdemeanor charges, each punishable by a year in jail, were dropped Friday and the trial canceled, but Harding’s case has been referred to the Rockingham County attorney’s office for further review, according to New Hampshire State Police prosecutor Jean Reed.

That means Harding could be indicted on felony charges, which are punishable by incarceration in state prison.

Reed declined to comment further, referring questions to County Attorney James Reams. Reams could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Harding was arrested following a confrontation with the teenager Aug. 18 at Day Field. Harding later admitted he pushed the boy after believing he was damaging the town’s movie equipment. Harding said he did nothing more than push the boy.

Five teenagers from Danville, Atkinson and Plaistow were expected to testify at the trial, along with Harding’s wife, Stephanie, and fellow selectman and police Officer Michelle Cooper, who responded to the incident. Since the incident occurred, the investigation has been handled by state police to avoid any possible conflicts, according to Danville police Chief Wade Parsons.

Harding, a second-year selectman, surrendered to state police after an arrest warrant was issued in September. He has been free on $5,000 personal recognizance bail.

Harding has not attended a selectmen’s meeting since September and notified the board in November that he was taking an unpaid leave of absence. Danville selectmen make $250 a month.

Last month, Harding sent a letter to his colleagues, saying he didn’t want his legal troubles to be a distraction, according to Selectmen Chairman Shawn O’Neil.

Harding also said he didn’t expect to return to the board until after Feb. 28. He has refused to speak publicly about the case since his arrest and did not return calls seeking comment yesterday. His attorney, Raymond Mello, was also unavailable for comment.

Harding has said he made a mistake when he defied the police chief’s decision to cancel Movie Night Aug. 18 because of a threat of rain that day.

Harding, convinced it would not rain, got the key to the town’s storage area and brought the movie projector, inflatable screen and other equipment to Day Field. Residents were notified hours earlier that the movie had been canceled.

Harding, who helped organize Movie Night along with the Recreation Committee and Police Department, said he was afraid the event would not be rescheduled if it were canceled. It didn’t rain and only one family showed up. As Harding was getting ready to put the screen, projector and other items away, he saw the teenage boy near the equipment. Harding said he yelled at the boy and asked what he was doing. Another volunteer called Danville police. Harding said he stepped between the teenager and the equipment, afraid it would be damaged.

“In doing so, I guess I came in contact with him,” Harding said.

After the incident, selectmen asked Harding for his resignation, saying the incident had become a distraction. Harding refused. O’Neil and the board’s other three members said Harding overstepped his bounds when he ignored the cancellation of Movie Night and allegedly assaulted the boy.

Selectmen have expressed frustration with Harding’s absence as they prepare for town elections next month while missing a board member with no way to replace him.

Under state law, a public official can be removed from office only if convicted of a felony. If Harding faces felony charges, it could affect his return to the board.