Sec. of State Says He's On Trump Commission Only in 'Personal Capacity'

Oct 2, 2017

Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s participation on President Trump’s election commission has earned him criticism that he’s undercutting his decades of work as New Hampshire’s top elections official. Gardner, for his part, says he’s taking part in the controversial commission “in [his] personal capacity.”

Still, over the past five months since the commission was formed, state workers — including Gardner's staff assistant and attorneys employed by the New Hampshire Secretary of State — have repeatedly been called upon to carry out work related to the commission, apparently on state time.

According to more than 400 pages of emails and other documents released by Gardner in response to requests from NHPR and others, Gardner’s staff have ferried documents between his state office and White House staff, and fielded requests from the White House official in charge of the commission, among other tasks. Much of this correspondence appears to take place during regular business hours, according to time-stamps on the emails. 

The presidential commission launched in May, billed as a forum for “study[ing] the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections.” Critics have objected to the commission over concerns that it will be used to enact stricter voting laws and provide cover to unfounded theories about widespread voter fraud. Among those perpetuating those claims are President Trump himself and the co-chair of the commission, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

While Gardner has said he doesn't share Trump and Kobach's belief that voter fraud could have tainted the outcome of the 2016 election, his membership on the commission has been controversial from the start, especially given his job overseeing New Hampshire elections for more than 40 years.

In an email to NHPR, Gardner wrote, "Although I view my role on the Commission as being in my personal capacity, I nonetheless want to provide you whatever documents I have related to my work on the commission."

According to other records provided by the Secretary of State's office on Monday, the office previously denied several right-to-know requests from others seeking commission-related documents. In those denials, the state claimed that records related to the commission's work were not official government records as defined under the state's right-to-know law.

"While documents were identified as responsive to this request, they are withheld because they are not government records as defined in RSA 91-A:I-a, III," a staff attorney wrote last month in response to one of the people who requested documents related to the commission. "The documents are not in furtherance of the Secretary of State’s Office’s official function.”

The office appears to have since followed up with some requestors to let them know that Gardner would be turning over some documents from his personal accounts.

Indeed, much of Gardner’s correspondence related to the commission appears to go through his personal email account, not his state account. Invitations to New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation to attend a meeting of the commission at Saint Anselm College were sent on letterhead that read “William M. Gardner — Manchester, New Hampshire.” Gardner signed those with the title of “Commission Member,” not “Secretary of State.” 

At the same time, the batch of records provided by Gardner also show employees in the Secretary of State’s office performing some tasks related to the commission’s work. Most of these involved correspondence with Andrew Kossack, the White House official serving as the main point person for the election commission.

Ahead of the commission’s first meeting at the White House in July, Gardner sought clearance for New Hampshire state attorneys to attend commission meetings. A document from July 14 printed on Secretary of State letterhead includes biographies for the two employees, with a handwritten note from Gardner at the top: “Andrew — These are the two young lawyers we talked about earlier. Eric will be the one for the first meeting. Best, Bill.”

Additional emails between an assistant in the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office and staff at the White House show attempts to complete forms for Secret Service clearance for at least one of these employees.

On several instances, employees within the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office also forwarded news clippings, research and other materials to Kossack on Gardner’s behalf.

The documents forwarded by state office assistants, all sent with the subject line “From Secretary Gardner,” included: a press release on the outcome of a lawsuit over the state’s handling of checklist information requested by the commission; links to two opposing columns on the effect of that lawsuit, one written by Deputy N.H. Secretary of State Dave Scanlan; articles about several election cybersecurity experts tapped to testify before the commission, as well as other local newspaper clippings and electoral research.

Beyond the correspondence between state officials and those involved in the commission, the documents shared by Gardner in response to NHPR’s request also included: drafts (both handwritten and typed) of his prepared remarks for commission meetings, handwritten postcards and other notes from people concerned about his involvement on the commission; and an email from one of the experts Gardner invited to testify before the commission, raising concerns about “the sort of recommendations this committee might make in the end” and asking not to be listed as a “consultant” without prior approval.