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Experts Say Gunstock Donations to Sununu Didn’t Violate the Law

The headline at left-leaning InDepthNH reads, “Questions raised about donation from Gunstock to Sununu’s 2020 campaign.”

Right-wing secessionist state Rep. Mike Sylvia (R-Belmont) called it “inappropriate and possibly illegal.”

So, what is the deal with the $500 campaign donation from the Gunstock Area Commission (GAC) to Gov. Chris Sununu’s 2020 campaign?

The answer, according to experts on New Hampshire election law, is “not much.”

Sununu actually received two campaign donations made to the Friends of Chris Sununu from the Gunstock Area Commission, one for $500 to his 2020 campaign and another to his 2022 re-election bid of $1,000. His opponents have suggested the money — approximately 0.07 percent of the $1.9 million Sununu raised for the 2020 campaign — may have influenced his behavior toward the county-owned facility.

Leaders in the New Hampshire Democratic Party suggested Sununu broke the law, or at least created the possibility of criminal action, by accepting the GAC donation. Gunstock is owned by the people of Belknap County and operated by the management team hired by the commissioners. The commission is appointed by the members of the county’s House delegation, led by Sylvia.

“Gunstock is publicly funded by Belknap County taxpayers, and if Sununu were to have used that public funding for his 2020 gubernatorial campaign, that donation could be in violation of campaign finance law,” the New Hampshire Democratic Party said in a statement.

Sununu’s team, led by campaign advisor Paul Collins, has maintained from the beginning the allegations were nonsense.

“Under state law, a contribution from the Gunstock Area Commission is not a prohibited political contribution and the Friends of Chris Sununu did nothing wrong in accepting a contribution,” Collins said.

RSA 664:4, which lays out what counts as an illegal campaign donation, backs up Collins’ statement. New Hampshire bans contributions from business partners and labor unions, and it limits individual contributions to no more than $5,000. Candidates are also limited to giving $10,000 to their campaigns.

As one longtime GOP strategist who worked on many campaigns told NHJournal on background, “We have so few campaign laws in New Hampshire, it’s almost impossible to illegally accept a contribution.”

On the question of whether the GAC violated the law by making donations, the enabling legislation that created Gunstock explicitly says the commission has the power to “solicit, receive, hold, and expend any gifts, grants, or donations from any source made for any purpose set forth in this act.”

According to Assistant Secretary of State Orville “Bud” Fitch, the secretary of state’s elections legal counsel, if there is any other law in question, that is a matter for the attorney general. Fitch said any enforcement of the RSA 664 comes from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.

So far, Attorney General John Formella’s office has been silent on the question of the campaign donations.

“At this time, the Attorney General’s Office will not be commenting on ongoing matters involving the Gunstock Area Commission, as the New Hampshire Department of Justice has recently received various pieces of information regarding Gunstock that we are currently reviewing to determine appropriate next steps,” said Michael Garrity, director of communications for the New Hampshire Department of Justice.

The management team walked off the job two weeks ago in protest of the way the commission operated. The resort was shut down and members of the public started getting angry about the situation. Finally, commissioners Peter Ness and David Strang resigned from the commission under pressure, and the management team agreed to return to their posts.

Gunstock is the largest employer in the county and a major economic driver for the whole region. The facility was in danger of not being able to open in the winter if the team did not return to their jobs.

Gunstock Team Rehired, But Insists Strang Needs To Go

The management team that walked off of their jobs in protest after months of clashing with members of the Gunstock Area Commission were rehired Sunday, contingent on Commissioner David Strang resigning or being removed.

The management team told commissioners last week they could come back and restart operations at Gunstock Mountain Resort only if Commissioners Peter Ness and David Strang quit or were removed from their positions.

Last week, Strang and Ness walked out of a contentious meeting during which members of the public chanted for them to quit.

Under that pressure, Ness quit last week, but Strang continues to hold on. On Sunday, Commissioners Jade Wood and Doug Lambert voted to rehire the team, contingent on Strang’s removal. Strang did not appear at the meeting and called in from home.

A meeting of citizens and Gunstock Mountain Resort officials on Sunday, July 31, 2022. (Twitter)

The resort is owned by Belknap County and the commissioners are appointed by a vote of the county’s state delegation. Only the Belknap County Delegation can remove Strang from the commission. 

Ness and Strang have the support of the delegation head, Rep. Mike Sylvia (R-Belmont). However, they appear to have lost support from the other representatives.

Rep. Mike Bordes (R-Laconia) said a majority of the delegation’s members have agreed to call a meeting Monday, where they are expected to remove Strang. Bordes said most of the delegation is now opposed to Strang remaining on the commission.

“From my understanding, yes (they are opposed,)” Bordes said.

Sylvia has taken heat for the fiasco at the ski resort, which is the largest employer in the county and a year-round economic driver. The facility generates millions of dollars in revenue for the local and state economy. It just had a record season that saw $9 million in revenue.

Bordes said even though the delegation plans to remove Strang there are no plans to change the delegation’s leadership at this time.

The dispute over the mountain’s operation has become a wide-ranging fight. When the management team quit, Gov. Chris Sununu called out Sylvia and his followers in the delegation for their handling of the situation in an open letter to the people of Belknap County.

“These individuals have made bad decisions and until they are removed from their positions and replaced with good people who recognize the wonderful asset the Gunstock is, the County will continue to suffer,” Sununu wrote.

Sununu offered the Gunstock management team jobs with the state if they were unable to resolve the dispute with the commission.

Sylvia responded by accusing Sununu of unethical behavior in interfering with the dispute. Sylvia claims Sununu is being swayed after his reelection campaign accepted a $500 donation from the Gunstock Area Commission in 2020.

The donation check, signed by Gunstock General Manager Tom Day, is not a problem, according to Lambert, who said Day explained that donation when asked about it.

Though Sununu’s team maintains no law was broken, Democrats are using the donation to attack him. Democratic Party Chair Raymond Buckley issued a statement making vague accusations that Sununu may have violated the law. 

Gunstock is publicly funded by Belknap County taxpayers, and if Sununu were to have used that public funding for his 2020 gubernatorial campaign, that donation could be in violation of campaign finance law,” the statement reads.

The NHDP did not respond to a request from NH Journal for the specific law that was violated. It is not clear from any legal expert contacted by NH Journal if Sununu’s campaign broke any law by accepting the donation.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office has so far stayed out of the dispute.

Sylvia Accuses Sununu of Unethical Behavior as Gunstock Battle Boils Over

The state representative blamed for the ongoing fiasco at Gunstock Mountain Resort has raised the stakes, accusing Gov. Chris Sununu of a conflict of interest and suggesting he may have accepted an improper political donation from the resort.

Rep. Mike Sylvia (R-Belmont), who heads up the Belknap County delegation, is accusing Sununu of interfering with the county-owned Gunstock Mountain Resort to benefit his own ski property, the Waterville Valley Resort.

“This is an ethical quandary for the governor as it interferes with the leadership of a competitor ski area, whose closure stands to benefit his family and his pocketbook,” Sylvia said in an open letter responding to Sununu’s criticisms.

The Sununu family is the principal investor in the Waterville Valley Resort. Sununu worked as CEO at Waterville until he was elected governor. 

Sylvia is also calling out Sununu for a $500 campaign donation he accepted from the resort for his 2020 re-election campaign.

Sununu isn’t backing down, lashing out at the extreme political views of Sylvia and some of his allies.

“They wanted to secede from the United States of America, completely un-American. They don’t believe in democracy,” Sununu said Wednesday. “I think those individuals should be removed for a variety of reasons. This is just the latest episode of their craziness.”

Asked if he was urging Belknap County residents to vote out a fellow Republican — meaning Sylvia– Sununu replied, “Oh, absolutely.”

Among the three lawmakers singled out by Sununu, only Sylvia voted for secession. Sununu said it is impossible to try to convince Sylvia and his followers to return the Gunstock management team to the resort.

“There are individuals that don’t believe in government. They don’t believe in America. They don’t believe in the Republican Party. They don’t believe in anything that we really stand for, so there really is no reasoning or rationalizing with them,” Sununu said.

Sununu also defended the management team and their decision to walk out.

“I think (Gunstock’s General Manager) Tom Day and the team that he’s had there have done a tremendous job. It took a lot of guts to do what they did, but they’ve made it clear they want Gunstock to succeed,” Sununu said. “They want to come back and make sure it gets right back on the right track, but they’re not gonna do it under the same circumstances.”

In his letter, Sylvia also claimed Day was under investigation for using Gunstock money to make a political donation to Sununu’s campaign when he quit.

“Since Gunstock is owned by Belknap County all its funds are public monies and using public dollars to support a political campaign is clearly improper and possibly violative of the law,” Sylvia wrote.

Sylvia claims Day quit rather than submit to the investigation. Sununu has offered Day and the other managers jobs at Waterville or with the state if they cannot work out a resolution at Gunstock. Sylvia claims that is more proof of Sununu’s unethical meddling.

Sylvia also supplied a copy of the $500 check from Gunstock that Day sent to the Friends of Chris Sununu in 2020.

“Making such an offer after receiving a campaign contribution is the definition of quid-pro-quo,” Sylvia said.

Sununu’s campaign manager Paul Collins pushed back on the accusation of impropriety, saying no law was broken.

“Under state law, a contribution from the Gunstock Area Commission is not a prohibited political contribution and the Friends of Chris Sununu did nothing wrong in accepting a contribution,” Collins said. “The governor is standing with thousands of citizens in Belknap County and beyond calling for a new commission that will get Gunstock open and serving the public again. There is no quid pro quo, and such an accusation is without merit. If any of our contributors request a refund of their contribution, we of course oblige their request.”

Rep. Aidan Ankaberg (R-Rochester) called for greater scrutiny of Sununu’s actions after he learned about the donation.

“This is public malfeasance and there needs to be transparency and accountability,” Ankaberg said.

The management team at Gunstock quit last week after months of fighting with the Gunstock Area Commission, accusing the political appointees of incompetence and interference. Gunstock enjoyed record revenue under the management team. The resort employs 600 people making it Belknap’s biggest employer.

The commission is made up of five members who are all appointed by the county delegation, which is currently controlled by Sylvia. Sununu has called for Sylvia and his supporters in the delegation to be voted out of office and to have commissioners Peter Ness and David Strang removed from the commission. According to Commissioner Doug Lambert, the management team has agreed to return once Strang and Ness are removed.

Meanwhile, the Belknap County Commission has joined in the call for the two problematic commissioners to resign, and they have sent a letter to the state Attorney General’s Office urging oversight of the resort’s assets.

“The County Commissioners believe nothing less than the survival of Gunstock as we know it is at stake,” they wrote to Attorney General John Formella.


‘Resign, You Guys!’ Controversial Gunstock Commissioners Storm Out of Meeting

The Gunstock Mountain Resort management team that walked off their jobs last week will come back, but only if two Gunstock Area Commissioners quit their oversight roles. 

State Rep. Mike Bordes (R-Laconia) said the management team wants to see Peter Ness and David Strang leave the commission.

“If they resign, the management team will come back,” Bordes said.

Commissioner Doug Lambert said it is urgent to get the team back in place and get the resort operating and preparing for the coming season.

“Winter is looming, even though it may not feel like it outside,” Lambert said. “It comes fast and the preparations that are involved are rather enormous. Every day lost could potentially be impactful at the other end.”

The county-owned ski resort has been closed since the mass resignation of the management team in response to the inept oversight by commissioners. Gunstock General Manager Tom Day, Cathy White, chief financial officer; Robin Rowe, director of resort services; Peter Weber, snow sports director; Rebecca LaPense, director of human resources; Patrick McGonangle, facilities operation director; and Kristen Lodge, director of marketing, all quit last week in protest.

Though the team gave their two-weeks notice, the commission responded by sending Belknap County Sheriff’s deputies to have them removed the following day. This week, four other mid-level managers quit their jobs, too, leaving the facility unable to operate its summer activities and unlikely to be open for the winter.

Lambert said more staff is going to quit if something is not done. He plans to get the resort team to put in writing their agreement to come back once Ness and Stang are gone.

The facility generates millions of dollars in revenue for the economy, and just had a record season that saw $9 million in revenue. Without the team members who quit agreeing to come back, it would be difficult to reopen. Finding professionals in the ski industry willing to take the job might be impossible, Bordes said.

“Who’s going to want this job with everything going on around it?” Bordes asked.

The commission met Tuesday at the urging of local leaders and members of the public to set a schedule to reopen. Lambert said there was also indication Ness and Strang were set to go into a non-public session to make new hires in order to temporarily get the site going.

Instead, Commissioner Jade Wood presented Strang and Ness with resignation papers to sign. Bordes said people were chanting for them to quit and shouting over them when they tried to speak.

“Resign, you guys, it’s what the people want!” Bordes shouted as Ness and Strang stormed out of the meeting. They did not offer their resignations.

 None of the commissioners responded to a request for comment.

“They didn’t resign. But to me, that’s walking off the job,” Bordes said,

Bordes, Wood, Lambert, and others plan to push the GOP-controlled Belknap County delegation to remove Ness and Strang if they will not go on their own. Bordes wants to see the management team brought back.

“I give them credit, they really stood up for what they feel is right,” Bordes said.

The members of the Gunstock Area Commission are appointed by the elected county delegation to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Belknap’s delegation is controlled by controversial state Rep. Mike Sylvia (R-Belmont). Lambert has spoken to Sylvia about dealing with the situation but said Sylvia would not agree to call a delegation meeting. Lambert has been contacting all 18 members of the delegation to get the situation resolved.

“It’s unclear right now if there is some ability to have an emergency meeting,” Lambert said. “I have impressed on them that this is an emergency.”

Sylvia is part of the political fringe and was behind the effort to have New Hampshire secede from the United States. His proposal only got 13 votes in the legislature and it was widely mocked.

Commission and delegation members have been feuding with the Gunstock team for months. Lambert said it boils down to conflicts over leadership and who had authority over day-to-day decisions. He said Ness was seen as interfering in the finance office, and even the snow sports planning at the resort, by members of the team.

“(The management team) felt the relationship had become untenable. They no longer had a comfort level to be able to work with the commission,” Lambert said.