The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office said Democrat Steve Marchand lied about his role in a political scheme targeting his opponents in Portsmouth.
Marchand, a progressive Democrat who once served as Portsmouth mayor and sought his party’s nomination for governor, will not face criminal charges, the office said in a letter. Instead, it issued a letter of warning to Marchand for his involvement in Preserve-Portsmouth.com and other websites that targeted sitting city council members in the last municipal election.
“It’s pretty bad,” said Peter Whelan, one of the Portsmouth councilors targeted.
Whelan, Councilors Susan Paige Trace, Ester Kennedy, Greg Mahanna, Petra Huda, and Mayor Rick Becksted were all targeted by anonymous websites, fliers, and robotexts operated by Marchand, according to Myles Matteson with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.
“It was shameful. There were robotexts sent by the thousands,” Whelan said.
Trace said the attorney general’s investigation revealed there was an effort to mislead the voters of Portsmouth.
“It’s about being transparent and behaving in an honorable manner,” Trace said.
All of the candidates targeted by Marchand were defeated. Current Portsmouth Mayor Deaglan McEachern declined to comment, as he had not seen Matteson’s letter.
“I didn’t have any interaction with the (Marchand) in my campaign,” McEachern said. “I have no idea what the former mayor was doing or not doing.”
Marchand did not respond to a request for comment. His attorney, Joseph Foster, is currently out of the country and unable to be reached.
Marchand’s bogus website was built to mirror a legitimate site with a similar name, Preserve Portsmouth, and purported to support the same city council candidates the original site endorsed. But it falsely described them as far-right Trump supporters. According to documents obtained by the Attorney General’s Office, Marchand wanted to depress voter turnout among Republicans in order to benefit Democrats on the ballot.
Marchand initially lied to investigator Anna Croteau when she questioned him about his part in the campaign, according to Mattson’s letter.
“When she first asked about Preserve-Portsmouth.com, you stated that you had heard of the website. You denied you had ever claimed responsibility for the website but noted that other people had been saying you were responsible for it,” Matteson wrote.
However, Croteau already had screenshots of a text conversation in which Marchand took credit for the content of the websites.
“To be very clear, I am the one to create the content,” Marchand wrote.
Matteson’s letter states the Attorney General’s Office has records of Marchand’s communications with at least four other people about the campaign, in which he stated the goal was to create guilt by association aimed at the targeted candidates, linking them to Trump in the mind of Portsmouth voters.
“(i)s really meant to help get Democrats who gave Becksted and others a vote in 2019 to really think about what they are doing in 2021,” Marchand wrote.
Whelan suspects the true purpose of the campaign was to get rid of council members who oppose development in the historic sections of the city. Marchand’s record as mayor includes changing zoning ordinances to make development easier, Whelan said. Whelan wants to know who Marchand was working with and for, and who funded the operation.
“Somebody spent a lot of money to do this,” Whelan said.
The attorney general’s report found that while Marchand would have violated campaign finance law by not disclosing who was behind the websites, fliers, and robotexts if it could be proved that he acted in concert with others. However, Marchand claimed, eventually, that while he acted alone in creating the content he did not set up the websites. Matteson noted the claim he acted alone was the last of many explanations Marchand offered to investigators.
New Hampshire law on campaign finance transparency allows a narrow exemption for individuals engaged in advocacy. Marchand was cautioned, however, that if he continues to engage in similar campaigns he could lose the exemption and face possible prosecution.
Last year, Portsmouth Democrat Committee Chair Shanika Amarakoon and New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley issued a statement condemning Marchand’s campaign.
“We cannot let our local elections be undermined by national-style political tactics. The city councilors who were attacked, after all, are our neighbors. While we may not agree with all of their decisions, they did not deserve this attack, and we do not stand for it,” Amarakoon and Buckley wrote.