The Burt Cohen Mystery
Candidate Bails Out; Granny D in the Race
Perhaps New Hampshire state Sen. Burt Cohen (D) never really stood a chance of unseating Sen. Judd Gregg (R) in November.
But instead of letting the voters decide his fate, he is now left to wonder, “What if …”
Cohen pulled the plug on his year-long campaign late Thursday, citing internal problems.
Exactly what those internal problems are remained unclear even Monday, but Cohen has brought in both an accountant and an attorney to look over his books. Furthermore, former campaign manager Jesse Burchfield has not been in touch with the state Senator since news of possible improprieties arose over the weekend, said Meghan Scott, Cohen’s spokeswoman.
“I have ended my campaign for United States Senate,” Cohen said in a statement on his Web site Monday. “This is not what I wanted to do. … Sadly, there is a campaign situation outside of my control that we are looking into. It would have been unfair to the Democratic Party for me to continue this campaign.”
New Hampshire Democratic leaders are now promoting 94-year-old Doris Haddock, better known as campaign finance reform advocate Granny D, as their preferred nominee in the Senate race. Two other candidates jumped into the race just before Friday’s filing deadline, as news of the Cohen campaign’s troubles began circulating.
Scott was mum about the exact nature of the “situation” facing Cohen’s campaign, but Granite State news outlets have reported that both Burchfield and Cohen’s war chest may have disappeared.
Questions also remain about just how much money was left in Cohen’s kitty. As of the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, Cohen had almost $400,000 in the bank, but he hired staff and committed resources to advertising since then.
While Cohen and party leaders apparently were unaware anything was amiss, the campaign had received several requests for additional information from the FEC.
The elections agency reportedly cited the campaign for sloppy accounting.
“Requests for information do not necessarily indicate enforcement action is under way,” an FEC spokesman said.
If an enforcement action was under way “I couldn’t talk about it” anyway, said the spokesman, Bob Biersak.
Scott would not confirm whether Cohen is seeking criminal charges against anyone.
A spokesman for the Portsmouth Police Department, where Cohen’s campaign headquarters is located, said the department was not investigating the matter.
The New Hampshire attorney general’s office did not return phone calls seeking information.
Scott said Cohen himself has done nothing wrong but decided to abandon his campaign because “we don’t know the level to which it can go [and] we still don’t know what can come to light.”
Scott could not provide Burchfield’s complete résumé but said he did run Cohen’s successful 2002 state Senate re-election campaign.
Previously, Burchfield had run the successful, though tumultuous, campaign of Florida state Rep. Anne Gannon (D) in 2000.
In that campaign, Gannon’s Democratic rival, attorney Barry Silver, filed a defamation suit against both Gannon and Burchfield.
Burchfield’s name was later dropped from the suit, and Gannon said the case was without merit.
Silver has filed numerous “frivolous” lawsuits against his political adversaries before, Gannon said.
As for campaign finance irregularities under Burchfield’s management, Gannon said there were none.
Only she and her treasurer, who was her husband, had access to her account and only she could write checks, she said.
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathleen Sullivan acknowledged that some state politicos had reservations about Burchfield running Cohen’s U.S. Senate campaign.
“Some people were concerned about him jumping from a state Senate race to a U.S. Senate campaign,” Sullivan said.
But it was Cohen’s decision to make and he chose to go with the young political operative, she said.
It appears as if Burchfield graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1999, though Scott could not confirm that or his age.
Gannon said she could not recall when or where he graduated from college nor his exact age.
On the surface, everything in Cohen’s campaign seemed in place, Sullivan said.
A source who was involved in Cohen’s fundraising but did not want to be named said that he did not observe or suspect anything improper during the time he helped Cohen raise campaign cash.
Most of Cohen’s staff was let go Thursday, Scott said, but she and the investigative team remain.
The campaign first became suspicious of Burchfield when he quit via e-mail last week, Scott said, refusing to reveal the contents of the communication.
Cohen’s surprise decision to back out left Sullivan scrambling to find a replacement candidate before Friday’s deadline.
There was no changing Cohen’s mind as he had already decided to bow out when he called Sullivan last week, she said.
“He said he felt he needed to spend his time getting to the bottom of this and it would have distracted him from the campaign,” she said.
While Democratic leaders thought they would have until Wednesday to fill the vacancy — which would have been the case had no one come forward by the filing deadline — the decision by one perennial and one novice candidate to file as Democrats on Friday forced their hand.
Sullivan said the party is backing Granny D, who has walked from coast to coast in support of campaign finance reform.
Sullivan said she talked to several people who would have run more “traditional” campaigns but ultimately all the big-name Granite State Democrats were already running for other offices or had decided to sit this one out and were not going to change their minds in 36 hours.
Someone of the stature of former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) — the party’s Senate nominee in 2002 — would not enter the race at the 11th hour and Sullivan said she did not ask her to.
Sullivan said she is excited to have Haddock on the ballot.
“Every campaign is symbolic,” Sullivan said of Haddock’s candidacy. “She will run on several issues — campaign finance, public financing of campaigns. Gregg is the king of special-interest money,” Sullivan said.
Haddock is not alone on the ballot, but Sullivan hopes to eliminate at least one of her primary rivals.
Former Berlin Mayor Richard Bosa, who ran in this year’s New Hampshire GOP presidential primary, should not be eligible to run as a Democrat since he only changed his party registration on Friday to file as a Democratic Senate candidate, Sullivan said.
The same issue could knock first-time candidate Katherine Houston off the ballot as well as she too only found the Democratic Party on Friday.
While the news centered on Cohen’s campaign this past weekend, Gregg also picked up a primary rival Friday. Former state Rep. Tom Alciere filed to run against the two-term Senator.
If malfeasance is unearthed, Cohen would join a growing group of politicians who have had campaign funds illegally siphoned.
Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) collectively lost more than $1 million to dishonest campaign aides in recent years.