MANCHESTER, NH — David Mara, New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald’s pick to oversee the troubled Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office, has no experience in trying cases at the Superior Court level but, according to NH Deputy Attorney General Jane Young he “knows his way around a courtroom.”
She said the former Manchester police chief was a police prosecuting attorney at the District Court level and supervised the police department’s legal division. She said at that time, those charged with felonies were arraigned in District Court. Mara, who was embedded with the City Solicitor’s Office, handled the arraignments and also conducted probable cause hearings, she said.
She said he understands cases and knows the rules of evidence. He also is an “excellent manager,” she said.
Young said the Attorney General’s Office also has hired a new training officer who will be working with Mara. He is veteran prosecutor Dave Rothman, who has prosecuted cases for decades in Strafford County and Merrimack County, where he headed the sexual assault unit.
“They’re a pretty powerful combination,” she said.
Mara has more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement, working his way up from a patrol officer to head the largest city police department in the state. He has served as the interim chief of the Portsmouth Police Department and, most recently, as the Governor’s Advisor on Addiction & Behavioral Health. He earned his Bachelor’s of Science degree from Northeastern University and his law degree from the New England School of Law.
Citing concerns with Hillsborough County Attorney Michael Conlon’s “handling and oversight of several critical matters” including several recent high-profile court cases, MacDonald on Friday notified Conlon that he would be exercising his authority to “control, direct and supervise” functions of the county attorney’s office.
While Conlon will remain as Hillsborough County Attorney, the Attorney General’s Office will be making all prosecuting decisions and will “assume control and supervision of the day-to-day criminal law enforcement function of the office,” MacDonald wrote Conlon.
Conlon said he was not surprised by MacDonald’s decision.
“It seems to be his MO,” Conlon said. “Frankly, I welcome any resources the AG’s office wants to make available to me to support the Hillsborough County office. This office has been in need of additional resources for years, and that’s why I made the budget arguments I made and, ultimately, ran for office, to see what I could do to help. It would have been more effective if he provided the help earlier.”
Conlon, a Democrat, said he sees no evidence of political motivation behind MacDonald’s decision, or choice of Mara, both part of a Republican administration under Gov. Sununu.
Conlon said he will continue to fight for his team, with whom he has been building trust in his eight months since he was elected.
“They haven’t had anyone fighting for them for years. I’m willing to advocate for them and the office, and bring about the progress they deserve with unmanageable caseloads,” Conlon said.
In his letter Friday, MacDonald laid a lot at Conlon’s feet, citing “systemic failures in the leadership of prosecutorial function of your office,” and stated that the AG’s office “repeatedly” offered help.
“I wouldn’t say that’s accurate,” Conlon said. “In offering assistance previously, they were simply being critical and exacerbating mistakes by publicizing them. If that’s the basis of our relationship, I don’t know know how he’d think I would ask for help. I have yet to receive any assistance that was productive or collaborative.”
Conlon also said there was no collaboration between the AG’s office and him in how to move forward after Conlon refused to resign Tuesday, at MacDonald’s suggestion.
“He didn’t ask me any questions. He made a lot of statements. They’ve never come down here to see how things were going – I guess they will now,” Conlon said. “It’s about time.”
MacDonald’s actions were the result of focusing on three cases out of more than 3,000 handled annually by his office, Conlon said.
Last April, MacDonald said the Hillsborough County Attorney’s office violated the Victim Bill of Rights when a prosecutor entered into a confidential agreement and dropped charges against Christopher Ahern, a former Franklin police officer. The victim in the case was unaware the agreement was confidential until after it was filed and said she would not have agreed to stalking and criminal trespass charges being dropped if she had known.
In July, Damien Seace, 35, allegedly killed Jennifer Burpee, 45, in her apartment at the Pariseau Hi-Rise. She was beaten to death with a piece of furniture, prosecutors said.
It wasn’t the first time that Seace had allegedly assaulted Burpee. On Oct. 29, 2018, he was arrested for second-degree assault for saying he was going to murder and bury her while putting his hands around her neck and choking her, according to documents on file in Superior Court.
The charge was later nol-prossed but the file didn’t indicate why. Conlon said the victim recanted.
The final straw was last Friday at the sentencing of the parents of a 20-month-old toddler who died after ingesting cocaine in their Hevey Street apartment. The father, Joshua Garvey, 32, pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and was sentenced to 10 to 20 years but will have five years suspended if he completes a drug treatment program. The mother was not charged in the death of her son, Tayden Garvey, but was sentenced to 8 1/2 to 17 years on drug trafficking offenses.
Police were outraged. Capano called the plea deal “disgusting.”
On Tuesday, MacDonald asked Conlon to resign amid the uproar but Conlon declined.
“Those three cases are important. I’m not diminishing that. But if they’re asking for perfection, they’ll be disappointed,” Conlon said. “That’s why the additional resources will be helpful and I will continue to advocate for the budget, for morale, and the resources needed for this office, and build on that.”
Conlon underscores that things came to a head due to a communication failure.
“The prosecutor didn’t escalate Manchester Police Department’s concerns,” Conlon said, noting that his team works well with detectives and investigators every day, relationships that are important to positive outcomes. He looks forward to preserving those relationships.
“This office has deep wounds and I’m doing what I can to heal them. I can’t change the past but I will fight like hell to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Conlon said.
Police Chief Carlo Capano said appointing Mara is “a great first step” in turning things around.
He said now is the time to fix the fractured relationships between the police chiefs of Hillsborough County and the Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office.
Capano worked for and with Mara who, he said, was police chief for seven years.
While he didn’t prosecute cases at the Superior Court level, Capano said he did prosecute juvenile cases which sometimes can be more difficult.
Mara is going through the process to be named an assistant county attorney. Young said it’s expected that the appointment will be on the Sept. 18 agenda of the Governor and Executive Council, which approves such appointments.
Late Friday Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig’s office released the following statement from the mayor:
“The Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office is a vital partner to ensure those who break the law are brought to justice. Former Manchester Police Chief David Mara served our community with distinction, and the City looks forward to working with him as he takes on this new role.”
Carol Robidoux contributed to this report.