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Judge's Gag Order Silences N.H. Town's Dealings

January 25, 2002|From Associated Press

GROTON, N.H. — The talk of the town in Groton is a judge's order barring the town's three managers from speaking to one another.

Prosecutors requested the ban at a bail hearing Tuesday for two selectmen who are accused of illegally trying to get extra money for the town from the federal government after a big snowstorm last winter.

Judge Jean Burling barred defendants Stephen Pilcher and Deb Johnson from contacting each other or the town's third selectman, Frank Harris, because prosecutors wanted to prevent any witness-tampering or collusion.

While town attorneys ponder what to do, local government is in a fix.

Most day-to-day business in this northern New Hampshire town of 456 people has continued, but anything handled by the selectmen is on hold. Some bills have gone unpaid because checks need the signatures of two selectmen.

"The townspeople can't believe a judge would issue such an order," said resident Ken Martell. "She not only sealed their lips, she tied their hands."

A resolution could be on the way. County Atty. Ken Anderson said he and the town's lawyer agreed Thursday to modify the ban to allow the selectmen to conduct town business, but only if all meetings are public and recorded, with no one discussing the case that prompted the ban.

"The consequences to the town and the innocent people in the town of Groton were something I became convinced I can't overlook," Anderson said.

He said a motion modifying the ban would be presented to the judge today.

The selectmen are part-time elected officials who are paid $2,000 a year to manage the town's finances.

The trial is set for June, which could be a major problem for the silenced selectmen if the ban isn't lifted or changed. The Board of Selectmen must propose a town budget by Feb. 5 and present it to voters at Town Meeting--a big Yankee tradition in New England--in March.

A selectmen's meeting Tuesday night was canceled, and future meetings have been postponed until further notice.

Groton is a former mining town with no industry or businesses and no full-time town employees. Town Hall is a four-room building that houses the selectmen's office, the town clerk, the Police Department and the library.

Johnson and Pilcher could get up to 15 years in prison if convicted of theft and conspiracy. They are accused of falsifying a federal aid application by listing plow trucks that didn't exist and hours that weren't worked. They have denied the charges.

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