EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 18, 2013

Executive councilor denies trying to influence judge

Police forward case to attorney general for review

By Doug Ireland
direland@eagletribune.com

---- — SALEM — Executive Councilor Christopher Sununu insists he didn’t use his political position to influence a judge sentencing a friend.

The Attorney General’s Office is being asked to see whether he did.

Circuit Court Judge Michael Sullivan became angry during a sentencing Tuesday after receiving a letter from Sununu about Patrick McDougall, a former Salem official being sentenced for obstruction of government administration.

Sununu’s letter, written on Executive Council letterhead, asked the judge to consider McDougall’s community service record when sentencing him.

Sullivan did not appreciate the input.

“My decision on sentencing today has to be on what I hear in this courtroom,” he said from the bench.

Letters of support can be sent to attorneys involved in a criminal case, but not to the judge.

Sullivan said he found the letter on his desk Monday. Once he opened it, he said, he didn’t read beyond the first sentence, calling receipt of the letter “a highly unusual event.”

The Salem Police Department, which prosecuted the case, is forwarding a copy of the letter, court transcripts and other information to the state Attorney General’s Office for its review, according to Deputy police Chief Shawn Patten.

Sullivan sentenced McDougall, a former Budget Committee and Zoning Board of Adjustment member, to two days in jail for interfering with paramedics trying to take his wife to the hospital after she called 911.

Sununu, reached shortly after the sentencing, was flabbergasted to hear the judge objected to him sending the letter.

“What?” he said. “You’re kidding me.”

The executive councilor called it a “procedural oversight.”

Sununu, who grew up in Salem and now lives in Newfields, said he was only writing a letter in support of a friend and didn’t realize it was against the law to send it to the judge. McDougall and his lawyer, Neil Reardon, asked him to write the letter.

“I know your reputation as a fair judge and when considering Patrick’s sentencing I hope you will reflect upon his many positive attributes and contributions to the community,” Sununu wrote, “and work to find a sentence that is reasonable but does not cause his wife and family excessive harm or distress.”

After hearing Sullivan’s reaction, Reardon apologized to the judge, saying he didn’t realize the letter would be sent directly to him.

“I didn’t mean to throw it directly at you,” Reardon said.

Sununu flatly denied using his position as an executive councilor to influence Sullivan..

“If that was some type of breach of process, I apologize,” he said. “I just think it’s nothing out of the ordinary that other folks wouldn’t do.”

Sununu said he spoke to Attorney General Michael Delaney Wednesday after learning the judge was upset. Delaney told him he had done nothing illegal or unethical, Sununu said yesterday.

“He said it’s clearly not a problem,” Sununu said. “I’m not worried about it.”

Delaney could not be reached for comment.

Under New Hampshire law, RSA 640:3 (b), anyone convicted of improperly influencing a public servant such as a judge is guilty of a Class B felony, which is punishable by three and half to seven years in state prison.

Sununu said he met McDougall at a political event a few years ago and the two became friends.

In his letter, Sununu praised McDougall for his commitment to Salem boards and the Republican Party.

Political analyst Dean Spiliotes said he didn’t think it was unusual for a politician to send a letter of support on behalf of a friend.

Spiliotes, a Southern New Hampshire University professor, said he would be more concerned if Sununu had been one of the executive councilors who approved Sullivan’s judicial appointment.

Albert Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, said it’s not unusual for elected officials to be unfamiliar with judicial procedure, unless they are lawyers.

Scherr said he wouldn’t consider what Sununu did unethical unless it happened repeatedly.

“As a onetime incident, it doesn’t overly concern me,” he said. “But I think Councilor Sununu learned his lesson.”