Judge poised to sanction Hillsborough County Attorney

·3 min read

Sep. 16—A Superior Court judge has said he may impose sanctions against the office of Hillsborough County Attorney John Coughlin, citing an "administrative breakdown" in the office that has led to missed deadlines and ignored court orders.

It is the second time this year that Judge Will Delker, who sits in the Manchester branch of Hillsborough County Superior Court, has used a written order to vent his frustrations with the office of Coughlin, a Republican and former judge elected to the position in November.

But this time, Delker said he is considering a range of sanctions and scheduled a court hearing for Oct. 12 to receive input.

The judge also suggested that he may encourage the Attorney General's Office to become involved in supervision and training.

Were that to happen, it would be a reprise of two years ago, when Republican Attorney General Gordon MacDonald took over the prosecutorial functions of the office, which was then headed by a Democrat, Michael Conlon.

In his three-page order, Delker lays out how one case suffered from a midstream switch in prosecutors, missed deadlines for entering into plea negotiations, and botched signals from prosecutors.

Calling it an "administrative breakdown," Delker wrote, "There is no evidence that anyone has willfully ignored court orders, which would result in a citation for criminal contempt. Rather, the issue seems to be a matter of culpable neglect."

In an email to the New Hampshire Union Leader, Coughlin's first assistant said Delker relied only on one side in the case — that of public defender Robin Pisan — when he wrote his order.

First Assistant Shawn Sweeney faulted the public defender for not contacting his office to settle the case with a plea bargain. He said his office complied with Delker's deadlines. And he questioned the judge's own scheduling ability, noting that on Sept. 7 Delker called for a hearing within 30 days, and then scheduled it for Oct. 12, five days beyond his own deadline.

"Judge Delker is again threatening prosecutors with sanctions despite their clear compliance with what turns out to have been a poorly written order," Sweeney wrote.

Coughlin, who held the Hillsborough County Attorney office for one term in the early 2000s, won election last November after the attorney general takeover raised questions about Conlon's ability to perform as prosecutor.

"We have regular communication with their office and continue to work with them to address these challenges," Attorney General John Formella wrote in an email.

Albert "Buzz" Scherr, a UNH Law professor, said Delker's order is actually restrained. The law professor said he hears from former students who complain the county attorney's office is disorganized.

"If the county attorney were a Democrat, the attorney general would step in on this," Scherr said.

MacDonald's actions two years drew heavy criticism from criminal defense lawyers and Democrats, who saw it as an overreach of power.

Manchester police would not comment on Delker's order "at this time," spokesman Heather Hamel said.

Coughlin has experienced his own problems since taking office.

Turnover has been high, and he has hired several prosecutors — such as former Republican state Rep. Lynne Blankenbeker and cardiologist-turned-prosecutor Norm Lazarow — who have little if any trial experience.

Coughlin has compared his efforts to building a baseball team by concentrating on its bench.

He has the financial resources to do so. This year, the Democratic-controlled county delegation boosted Coughlin's budget by 22%.

"Please, let's not see any mess-ups," delegation chairman Rep. Pat Long, D-Manchester, said at the time.

Delker issued his order in the case of Carlos Marsach, who faces a charge of reckless conduct with a deadly weapon.

In his order, Delker wrote that Coughlin should be prepared to address what sanction is appropriate in the matter. He also invited the public defender, whose office is defending Marsach, to weigh in.

Delker wrote that he may issue a fine.

"I would fine Coughlin," Scherr said. "As the head of the office, leave it up to Coughlin to decide where the money comes from."

He said judges have taken similar actions in the past, but not often.

mhayward@unionleader.com

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