The NH House All-Reps List "EBT Card" Dialog, part 2

additional commentary by Rep. Timothy Horrigan; July 9, 2012

See Also:

Every so often, a story goes viral in the right wing media about lazy welfare recipients using their EBT Cards to rip off the taxpayers. EBT stands for "Electronics Benefits Transfer": these EBT cards are issued by the Department of Agriculture. They look like— and are— ordinary debit cards, and they are used for several welfare programs. The most common program is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (aka "food stamps") which can only be used for food. But there are a few other programs which pay cash benefits which can used for anything. A clerk named Jackie Whiton at the Big Apple store in Peterborough, NH made up her own rule that said you couldn't use your EBT cards to buy cigarettes. On May 20 , 2012, Ms. Whiton confronted an unidentified young man who tried to break her rule. She ended up getting herself fired. And a few weeks later, she became a darling of the FoxBaggers.

On Friday, July 6, the Speaker O'Brien held a press availability in his office, on the topic of poor people (allegedly) misusing their EBT cards. This produced some memorable video:

The original press release stated:

NH House Speaker to Hold Availability on EBT cards with Jackie Whiton and Bipartisan group of Legislators

FRIDAY, JULY 6, 2012 AT 06:30AM

CONCORD House Speaker William O'Brien Friday will hold a media availability in his office to discuss plans to address possible reforms within the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system. Jackie Whiton, an Antrim women, was fired as a store clerk after refusing to allow a customer to use his EBT card to buy cigarettes. The bipartisan group tomorrow will hear Mrs. Whiton's story and discuss whether or not reforms should be made and, if so, what can be done.

WHEN: Friday, July 6, 11:00am

WHO: Speaker O'Brien, Jackie Whiton, other legislators
WHERE: Speaker's Office, Third Floor, State House, Concord

The even was billed as "nonpartisan" but there was only one Democratic legislator in the room, as it turned out: Peter Leishman from Peterborough.)

For the Concord Monitor, it was more of a non-availability: Da Speakah courageously asked a pregnant woman, Shannon Bettencourt, to block the door when Matt Spolar and Annmarie Timmins showed up. (Ms. Bettencourt is the wife of the disgraced ex-Majority Leader D.J.Bettencourt, and they are expecting their first child in a few months.) The disgraceful exclusion of two reporters proved to be something of a distraction, although most other media outlets obediently ignored the Monitor's conspicuous absence.

The Speaker is obsessed with the possibility of food stamps being used to buy lobster. He says he saw a sign on a Shaw's Supermarket in Milford, NH, inviting EBT users to buy lobsters at tax-payer expense. Lobsters are a pleasure, and in O'Brien's view public assistance is supposed to be for necessities only. He issued a memorable quote (which is absent from the above videos, unfortunately):

I am not convinced that O'Brien was remembering anything which he saw with his own eyes in Milford or anywhere else in New Hampshire. I suspect that he was remembering the furore over a legendary register tape (as discussed in my previous EBT article, part 1) from Angeli's County Market in Menominee, Michigan (a town less than 1250 miles west of New Hampshire.)  That register tape belonged to a man who was showing a modicum of entreprenurial spirit, although he was acting illegally and dishonestly: he misappropriated his girlfriend's EBT card to buy items which he resold for cash.

Ironically, there is an oversupply of lobster in New Hampshire this season and prices have dropped as low as $4.00/pound or even lower (about the same cost as store-brand cheddar cheese.) In all fairness to O'Brien, he has no way of knowing that lobster prices are low, because he is not the type of guy who would do his own food shopping.

Part of O'Brien's anecdote about the lobsters, which happens to be more specific than most of his stories, does check out: there is a Shaw's in Milford (a few miles south of his adopted home town of Mont Vernon) and it does have signage stating that EBT cards are accepted. Shaw's has, like every other local grocery chain, been running summer-holiday specials on lobster and other seafood. O'Brien is a smart guy, but he is a Republican. Being a Republican, he doesn't do fine distinctions, like the difference between one sign and multiple signs.

I also doubt that O'Brien actually knows which store he saw the signage at. Shaw's, Hannaford's, Stop & Shop, DeMoulas, Whole Foods or whoever: they're all interchangeable to a guy like O'Brien (although Shaw's stands apart by being partially unionized, and O'Brien hates unions.) But that's a minor point since they have all been running specials on seafood.

Live shellfish, by the way, is the subject of a distinction in New Hampshire's food-stamp rules which is so fine it could even confuse a Democrat. You can't buy steamed lobster, because that's a prepared food— but you can buy live lobsters with your food-stamp account and then have them steamed after you buy them. Ironically this is bad for the taxpayers: prepared food is subject to a 9% tax which would be a sales tax if we weren't Tax-Free New Hampshire. Another irony is that the retailers who were chided for breaking faith with the taxpayers are taxed more heavily than just about anyone else in New Hampshire. Retailers bear the brunt of the state's high property and business taxes, and (even though there is no broad-based sales tax), they sell a lot of taxable merchandise— such as, cigarettes. And let's not even get into the fact that O'Brien went to great lengths to cut the tobacco tax in 2011 with the express aim of selling more cigarettes.

I will be following any legislative manuvers with interest. Although I think EBT cards are mostly out of the legislature's direct jurisdiction, I am considering introduceing a bill making cash-benefits EBT card look exactly the same as any other debit card. Where your money comes from really is no business of the cashier or of the other customers in line behind you.

The Monitor was apparently excluded because of an op-ed piece which the reporters had nothing to do with. Cartoonist Mike Marland caricatured the Speaker twice in May, first as Hitler (not shown) and then as Groucho Marx. It is unclear if the Speaker grasps the fine distinction between the Marx Brothers and Karl Marx (who was no relation to the comedic Marxes, and who was about three quarters of a century older):

Mike Marland's caricature of Speaker
          Bill O'Brien as Groucho Marx

O'Brien's refusal to admit the Concord Monitor to his press conference caused some interesting dialog on the "All Reps" list.

Here are a few samples.

Rep. Rick Watrous (D-Concord) kicked it off:

From: Watrous, Rick

Sent: Friday, July 06, 2012 7:32 PM

Restricting the freedom of the press reflects poorly on the Speaker and on the whole House.

--Rep. Rick Watrous

Al Baldasaro (R-Londonerry) retorted:

From: Al Baldasaro []

Sent: Friday, July 06, 2012 7:55 PM

The Concord Liberal Press, I don't blame Republicans for not talking to them, since they turn everything around we say.

The hell with that newspaper!


I retorted:

From: Horrigan, Timothy

Sent: Saturday, July 07, 2012 1:33 AM

This is another example of the majority leadership's Sore Winner-ism.

--Tim Horrigan

The normally mild-mannered Fred Leonard (R-Rochester) replied, with uncharacteristic vehemence:

From: Leonard, Frederick

Sent: Saturday, July 07, 2012 7:30 AM

Whether you disagree with Speaker O'Brien's leadership style or not, linking him to one of history's most heinous mass murderers was completely wrong...this is not a Democrat or Republican thing...the Monitor needs to understand they have a certain responsibility to report and editorialize honestly and respectfully regardless of political party...many people (House members) have complained about the lack of civility in today's political discourse...consequently, yesterday's barring of the Monitor from the press event was not only appropriate, it was necessary...I believe all House members should rally around the decision from the Speaker's office to bar the Monitor from the event!

Fred Leonard

Jack Flanagan (R-Hollis) replied:

From: Flanagan, Jack

Sent: Saturday, July 07, 2012 7:49 AM

Rep. Leonard,

I couldn't say it better. The Monitor has a right to say what they want to. We, as elected officials, don't have to condone it. Or feed into it. One can take a position against our actions, however, when they are unprofessional, we can chose to not involve ourselves with them. Rep Horrigan or Rep Watrous, you both, in my opinion would have the same right if you felt specific members of the press were unprofessional also.

Hoping all have a safe and enjoyable summer,

Rep Jack Flanagan
Hillsboro District 5
Hollis, Brookline and Mason, NH

After a few more rounds of rhetoric, Rick Watrous tried to calm things down:

From: Watrous, Rick

Sent: Saturday, July 07, 2012 11:27 AM

Below is the Monitor editor's blog about this issue. Yesterday and today the EBT card story shared print and airtime with the story of the Speaker barring certain reporters. This distraction serves neither the EBT card issue nor the Speaker himself.

The cartoon was published in May; here we are in July and the Speaker still is letting it bother him and influence his decisions. But by this barring of Monitor reporters Speaker O'Brien brings the cartoon (and his leadership style) front and center again.

This action is counterproductive. The Speaker of the House appears both thin-skinned and ham-fisted.

--Rep. Rick Watrous


Not the news O'Brien expected

By Felice Belman / Monitor editor

July 6, 2012

House Speaker Bill O'Brien apparently doesn't like the rules that allow some welfare recipients to buy cigarettes on the public's dime. He held a press conference this morning to say so. Trouble is, the news that got everyone's attention had nothing to do with welfare.

O'Brien's office sent out a notice of his press conference to most of the New Hampshire press corps but deliberately didn't invite the Monitor. Our reporters got wind of the event, but when they showed up at the speaker's office, they were turned away at the door by O'Brien's spokeswoman, Shannon Bettencourt.

Reporter Annmarie Timmins asked for an explanation. At that moment, Bettencourt didn't give her one – a non-answer captured on video that's now making its way through cyberspace to viewers far and wide.

Later in the day, Bettencourt provided this written statement to Monitor reporter Matthew Spolar: "When the Concord Monitor proves they have chosen to become a responsible media outlet, we'll be happy to invite them to future media events."

Attached to Bettencourt's email was a political cartoon by Mike Marland published in the Monitor back in May. It depicted O'Brien with an Adolf Hitler mustache – and followed a bizarre episode on the floor of the House in which a Manchester lawmaker said "Sieg Heil!" to O'Brien in objecting to some parliamentary rulings by the speaker.

The cartoon, Bettencourt wrote, was "one example of irresponsible choices made by the Monitor."

There is quite a difference, of course, between Marland and our State House reporters. We rely on Marland for his sharp opinions, and we publish his cartoons on the Opinion page. A big part of his job is to skewer politicians and stir debate. Timmins and Spolar, on the other hand, are there to report the news of the day. That's what they were trying to do this morning – at least when we thought the news of the day was going to be about welfare.

Not unpredictably, however, it's much easier to get folks agitated about a politician fighting with a newspaper than to make them pay attention to policy matters on a lovely summer day.

TV and radio reporters have been calling to talk to us about this. Twitter was full of this story all afternoon, including this pointed reaction: "Look at it this way, nobody is tweeting about (electronic benefits transfer) cards this afternoon."

If the speaker holds a press conference in his office, he has the right to invite (or disinvite) whomever he chooses. It's unclear, however, exactly what he's accomplished by doing so today. After all, for much of the day, his message was obscured by his invitation list.

I don't know if O'Brien is a regular reader of the Monitor Opinion pages these days. It's possible he missed our Sunday piece about welfare reform. Had he read it, he might have asked Monitor editorialist Ralph Jimenez to join him at his press conference. After all, on that topic, we might just find some common ground.


Source URL:

The usually easy-going Fred Leonard replied:

From: Fred Leonard []

Sent: Saturday, July 07, 2012 11:57 AM

This coming from a person who belongs to a political party that calls anyone who disagrees with Obama's liberal policies a have no credibility with this issue and you'd be better to quit while you're behind...

Fred Leonard

Sent from my iPhone

Christopher Serlin (D-Portsmouth) eventually stepped in after some more accusations were hurled, mostly at Obama:

From: Rep. Christopher Serlin []

Sent: Saturday, July 07, 2012 6:44 PM

It's incredible to watch this train-wreck unfold. So many of you calling for the wagons to be circled around the Speaker for the Press has DARED to paint him in an unfavorable light in a cartoon. The HORROR!

If the Press "behaves" then they are afforded access. Oh how rich! As if the people and the Press work for us - or are our peers. What is this - a Banana Republic, where the politicians tell the press what they should and should not do? We work for the people of New Hampshire, which includes the Press. There is nothing that the press or the citizens of NH owe us. We owe THEM. We owe it to them all to be just a wee bit less sensitive to any who may insult us. A cartoon— from May— really? How ridiculous. Too many of you sound like my 7 yr old complaining about how so and so would not play the game the way he wanted so now that kid's not invited to his birthday. Yes, I have work to do with him - to get him to understand that people will often not treat you as you wish to be treated, but that it's important to rise above it and make better choices despite that. But then, he's 7.

The fact that I see adult men (in this particular case) arguing over email that the Speaker was right to ban the Press because they were "unfriendly" to him (wahhhhhh!), and had a cartoon that hurt his feelings (boo hoo!) is absurd! how old are you all? Are you grown ups or 7 yr olds?

The press has a right to access the House and every single one of us, most certainly the Speaker - at ANY TIME. We work for the people of New Hampshire - including the Press. They are not ours to command. We are theirs.

This has been the single most embarrassing conversation I have witnessed in my (to-date) 6 years of service to the NH House and people of New Hampshire. All of you who were insulted by a cartoon - grow up.


State Rep. Christopher Serlin
Portsmouth / Newington
Rockingham - 16

Fred Leonard's cogent response was:

From: Fred Leonard []

Sent: Saturday, July 07, 2012 7:43 PM

So you wouldn't mind if the press portrayed Obama with a bone piercing his nose and we can all pretend it wasn't racist?...

You Democrats always seem to operate in partisan mode...your so transparent its laughable!

Fred Leonard
Sent from my iPhone

Other reps, including me, made a few more comments after this one, but I think we should close with the comment of Tony Soltani (R-Epsom.) I think he summed this whole episode up pretty well. (Bill Bulger and Tom Finneran are disgraced Massachusetts politicians, and Finneran just happens to be O'Brien's mentor and former law partner):

From: Rep. Tony Soltani

Sent: Saturday, July 07, 2012 7:39 PM

This is one for the books. Mr. Obama is my president but not necessarily my role model. Republicans are supposed to learn from the mistakes of others, at least that is what we keep saying, not mimic them. We also keep saying we don't need any more laws. I do not think we need any laws to compel us not to act like Red Chinese , Soviets, Billy Buldger, or Tommy Finneran. We are supposed to have a moral compass built into our skull to know right from wrong. Was the representative from Mont Vernon within his legal rights to exclude "unfriendly" press while acting in his official capacity as the speaker? Probably yes. Was it the Republican , American, the New Hampshire way , or just the RIGHT thing to do, ? I don't need no stinking law to tell me. HECK NO. End of story.

Tony (Republican)

Allenstown, Epsom, Pittsfield


See Also: