Disgraced Strafford County Democrat Sheriff Mark Brave, facing a 24-hour deadline from the county commission, announced Monday night he would step down from his post and accept paid leave while his criminal case moves forward.
The county’s three-member commission voted earlier Monday to give Brave until noon Tuesday to go on paid administrative leave or face an expulsion vote by members of the county delegation of elected representatives.
Monday night, he caved.
“As I continue to ensure that you all are informed of processes, I wanted to let you know I have made the difficult decision to take administrative leave while the investigation, due diligence, and the legal process continues,” Brave said in a statement. “While I maintain that I am innocent, and none of my spending of [sic] out of state line items was due to deceive the county or the people of Strafford County, I do want to make sure that the wonderful team at SCSO is able to function without added stressors to their already difficult positions.”
Brave added, “This is a personal fight that should not impact the office.”
Chair George Maglaras said during Monday morning’s hearing it was the third time the commission had asked Brave to place himself on leave since they became aware of the criminal investigation.
Brave was arrested last week on eight felony charges stemming from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Public Integrity Unit investigation into his alleged misuse of a county credit card. Brave is charged with theft, falsifying evidence, and five counts of perjury for allegedly lying to a grand jury.
Brave is free on personal recognizance bail. However, the bail conditions make it all but impossible for him to do his job, Maglaras said. Brave cannot have contact with several members of his staff, nor can he contact members of the county administration staff. He is also prohibited from possessing a gun. All of the people he is prohibited from talking with are considered witnesses in the upcoming criminal case.
“In the opinion of the commission, it is impossible for Sheriff Brave to exercise his constitutional role to run that office when he can’t have contact with his staff. It’s as simple as that,” Maglaras said.
County delegation chair Rep. Peter Schmidt (D-Dover) said Monday morning he had hoped Brave would take the commission’s offer and goes on paid leave. If he hadn’t, Schmidt said, he was prepared to act.
“We are obviously looking at the necessary preparations for the proceeding if it goes that way,” Schmidt said.
While on leave, Brave will continue to receive his salary. Last year, his base salary was a little more than $72,000. Brave also earned about $10,000 in overtime pay. While on leave, he’s still under the court ordered rules of his release. For example, Brave could be jailed if he does contact his staff and other county staffers named in the bail order.
While Brave is an elected official and answerable to voters, he is also bound by some of the same rules as county employees, Maglaras said. Both Schmidt and Maglaras maintain Brave is not being treated any differently from other county officials in being asked to take paid leave during an open criminal case.
“We didn’t change anything for Sheriff Brave,” Maglaras said.
Brave could be jailed for breaking a court order if he does contact his staff and other county staffers named in the bail order.
Brave allegedly conducted multiple affairs using his county credit card to pay for his trysts.
Since Brave’s arrest last week, Bower has made sure his county credit card is canceled. However, Bower said Monday there is a new suspicious charge to the card that is being investigated.
Brave wrote a $600 check to cover his golf foursome for the county’s Make a Wish fund, which helps pay for final requests for nursing home residents in their last days.
“That check bounced,” Maglaras said.
Brave’s unraveling began in April when County Administrator Ray Bower discovered unusual charges on Brave’s county-issued credit card. Bower had a meeting with Brave and asked about the charges for a trip to Fort Lauderdale, including first-class airfare and a single hotel room with one king-sized bed.
Brave allegedly lied to Bower, claiming he went to Florida with a male deputy for a conference. Braved joked about the sleeping arrangements, but the single bed stuck in Bower’s mind.
“I had the feeling that something just wasn’t right,” Bower said.
Bower and county finance staff dug deeper and found that instead of a male deputy, the married Brave went to Florida with a female employee, Freezenia Veras. Bower contacted County Attorney Tom Velardi, who then contacted the Attorney General’s Office.
Months before the Fort Lauderdale trip, Brave created a new position in his department, chief of support services, for Veras and was paying her more in salary than his sworn-in and certified deputies. There was reportedly no formal job description for the chief of support services, and Brave had Veras handling his expense receipts, including the paperwork for the trip to Fort Lauderdale.
Brave allegedly lied to grand jurors that he slept in the hotel while Veras stayed with friends. Veras, unbeknownst to Brave, contradicted that story in her grand jury testimony and admitted they shared the room, according to records released in the case.
Brave is scheduled for arraignment on the charges in Rockingham Superior Court next month.