By Doug Ireland
---- — BRENTWOOD, N.H. — Rockingham County Attorney James Reams is challenging his suspension in court today, claiming he should not have been placed on administrative leave.
Reams has been ordered to stay away from his office, where the FBI and New Hampshire attorney general’s office are investigating “management and operational issues.”
The hearing at 1 p.m. in Merrimack Superior Court comes after county commissioners said they were told approximately $70,000 in uncashed checks were found in the county attorney’s office.
Michael Ramsdell, Reams’ attorney, said yesterday the attorney general’s office and commissioners had no constitutional authority to take action against his client because he is an elected official.
Attorney General Joseph Foster suspended Reams’ authority as a prosecutor Nov. 6. The commissioners then placed him on paid administrative leave, along with Deputy County Attorney Thomas Reid and an unidentified victim’s advocate.
Senior Assistant Attorney General James Boffetti was appointed interim county attorney, following a judge’s approval of an emergency court order.
“We are going to request that the court vacate the order,” Ramsdell said. “We believe the attorney general and the county commissioners have overstepped their constitutional authority.”
Ramsdell also said Reams, a Hampton Republican first elected in 1998, was suspended without being given a chance to defend himself against the allegations.
“He hasn’t had a chance to respond to them or cooperate,” Ramsdell said. “Jim Reams’ record stands for itself.”
Foster said his office began investigating the county attorney’s office after receiving a complaint from a former employee three weeks ago. The attorney general’s office and FBI interviewed other former employees and asked the U.S. attorney’s office for help as well.
County Commissioner Kevin Coyle said the FBI was still interviewing employees in the 39-employee office this week.
Although he acknowledged Reams and his attorney have a right to challenge the decision, Coyle said he stands behind the action taken.
Coyle and fellow Commissioner Thomas Tombarello said the three-member panel met with Boffetti on Tuesday afternoon and were told about $70,000 in uncashed checks were found in the county attorney’s office during the investigation. Boffetti met with police officials throughout the county Friday.
Although there was no impropriety involved, the commissioners said it was irresponsible to have uncashed checks, some received in July, left in the office. Boffetti could not be reached yesterday for comment.
“That’s bad practice and it won’t happen again,” Tombarello said.
Coyle criticized Reams’ management of the office and for taking four trips a year to conferences around the country, costing nearly $10,000 a year, he said.
“No other department heads take the trips he does,” Coyle said. “The fact that stuff in your office isn’t getting done — you shouldn’t be going on these trips.”
But Ramsdell said Reams attended the conferences only after receiving approval from county commissioners. Some trips were funded by outside agencies and at no cost to county taxpayers, he said.
Reams was at a National District Attorneys Association conference in Texas when informed of his suspension. He declined to comment and said he was trying to sort out the details.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said last week.
Coyle praised Boffetti for his handling of the office since taking over last week.
“He relieved our concerns, most of them financial,” Coyle said. “He saved a $30,000 grant for the county.”
Boffetti discovered Reams never applied for a federal grant that would have paid half of a victim advocate’s annual salary, Coyle said.
Even though the application deadline passed months ago, Boffetti made some phone calls and the county still has a good chance of getting the Violence Against Women Act grant, Coyle said.
“Those are things that shouldn’t happen,” Coyle said. “If you don’t fill out the application for it, you don’t get it.”
Ramsdell defended Reams’ overall work as county attorney. He also defended him against reports that female attorneys in the office complained to Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, a year ago that they were not being treated fairly. Pantelakos has not returned calls seeking comment.
Ramsdell said the majority of attorneys in the office are women, including two of three team leaders.
Reams is the chief prosecutor in Rockingham County, which includes coastal communities from Seabrook to Portsmouth and dozens of other towns in eastern New Hampshire.