DOVER, N.H. — Strafford County Sheriff Mark Brave said Monday evening that he would take a leave of absence, pending the resolution of a criminal investigation into his alleged misuse of public funds.
His decision came after local officials threatened to force him out of office if he refused to take paid administrative leave voluntarily.
Brave said he’s innocent and none of his spending was meant to be deceptive, but he wants to make sure the Strafford County Sheriff’s Office can function without unnecessary stressors or distractions.
“While this was a difficult decision to make, it is the right one,” he said. “My physical and mental health has taken a major turn, and I need to start thinking about taking care myself and my daughter.”
The three county commissioners decided, after meeting Monday with the county attorney, to give Brave a final opportunity to step aside. If he refused, as he had twice already, then they said they will begin the process to have him removed from office against his will. They gave him a deadline: Tuesday at noon.
“He’s leaving us little or no choice,” said commissioners chairman George M. Maglaras of Dover.
Brave was arrested on Aug. 17 and accused of stealing $19,000 in public funds and lying about the nature of his frequent travels. The state attorney general’s public integrity unit alleges that he paid for airfare, hotel stays, and meals for personal travel then fraudulently claimed the expenses were for official business. He faces eight felony charges, including five counts of perjury for allegedly lying to a grand jury.
Like any other criminal defendant, Brave is entitled to the presumption of innocence, but that doesn’t mean he’s in a position to continue exercising his authority as sheriff, Maglaras said. A bail order prohibits Brave from having any contact with a list of potential witnesses that include eight senior leaders in his office and a former employee. Rather than digging in his heels, Brave should take this opportunity to prepare for trial, Maglaras said.
“I’m just hopeful that he can take some time off and get his affairs in order and build his defense,” he said.
Brave, a Democrat who was elected in 2020 as New Hampshire’s first Black sheriff and reelected in 2022, has claimed to be the victim of a racist and politically motivated campaign to oust him.
“This is what George and his little minions wanted from the get-go,” Brave told the Globe over the weekend. “They wanted me out.”
But Maglaras, also a Democrat, rebutted that accusation Monday: “This has nothing to do with the color of his skin but the content of his character,” Maglaras said.
An affidavit was released late Friday with new details about Brave’s alleged conduct. In a one-year span, Brave spent at least 27 nights in various hotels on the county’s dime, with overnight guests that included romantic partners, and he presented dubious justifications for the expenses, which include several steak dinners for two, according to the affidavit.
While testifying before a grand jury in July 2023, Brave struggled to identify a woman who had stayed overnight with him at a hotel in Boston on her birthday in May 2023, according to the affidavit. “I forgot which one this is,” he testified, when shown a picture of the woman, according to the affidavit. “I’ve been dating a lot of people.”
A different woman, who lives in Maryland, contacted Dover police this month to report interactions she had with Brave. She said he had used his verified Instagram account to communicate with her, and they began a romantic relationship, according to the affidavit. Brave made three trips to her area in February and March and appears to have requested reimbursement from Strafford County for fuel he purchased for her car, according to the affidavit.
Brave said he’s been wrongly accused of having an affair. He and his wife separated more than 18 months ago and are getting a divorce, he said. As for his travel, Brave said he has the discretion to determine what trips should qualify as work-related, and he said there was nothing inappropriate about his after-hours conduct.
But that’s not how other county and state authorities see Brave’s spending sprees.
By the time county officials contacted the attorney general’s office in April 2023, Brave had allegedly maxed out two county-issued credit cards and borrowed another card from an employee, according to the affidavit. The attorney general’s office alleges that Brave submitted deceptive paperwork to seek reimbursement for his travel-related expenses and then lied to county officials and the grand jury about what he had been doing.
The trip that caught the attention of third-party auditors was one Brave took in August 2022 to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He flew first-class with Freezenia Veras, an executive assistant at the time, but her name was scrubbed from the receipt before it was submitted for reimbursement, according to the affidavit. Brave allegedly told the county administrator that a male deputy had joined him for the trip.
In an interview, Brave told the Globe that he and Veras have been friends since childhood. He helped her get hired in spring 2022 then created a new senior-level position for her that fall. Their trip to Florida was “work-related research,” he said, because her new role — Chief of Support Services/Public Information Officer — was to be modeled after a position that the Broward County Sheriff’s Office has.
By his own account, though, Brave’s research was haphazard at best. He said they found it “impossible to meet with anyone,” so he just asked Broward County deputies “a couple of questions” and got a copy of the relevant job description. (Veras testified that Brave had handled arrangements for their meetings in Broward County and, upon their arrival, informed her that the meetings had been canceled, according to the affidavit. She testified that she didn’t do any work on the trip.)
In hindsight, Brave acknowledged the trip wasn’t cost-effective.
“It wasn’t a great use of county funds,” he told the Globe. “I could have gone by myself. Or I could have made phone calls. I get that. But I didn’t do anything criminal.”
He claimed that “research or an attempted meeting” is a sufficient basis for the sheriff to justify spending taxpayer funds on out-of-state travel.
“People may not like the fact that I just jump on the flight and I’m going there, but … I know I’m going there for work-related things,” he said.
The promotion that Veras got in October 2022 came with a 39 percent pay raise, after which she was earning nearly $80,000 per year, which is more than Brave’s salary as sheriff. Brave said the increase was justified because her duties as “chief of support services” came with a “tenfold” increase in her responsibilities.
County officials said Brave didn’t get their approval for the new position and wound up exceeding his budget appropriation for salary, according to the affidavit.
Veras testified that she and Brave shared a hotel room but didn’t engage in any sexual activity together, according to the affidavit. Brave testified that they didn’t share a hotel room, and he told the Globe that they didn’t engage in any sexual activity. He’s facing a perjury charge over his claim that they didn’t share a room.
Maglaras said county officials were prepared to place Veras on administrative leave when concerns about the trip were first raised, but she resigned. Veras didn’t respond to an interview request.
Brave offered a variety of denials and counter-arguments when asked by the Globe about the specific allegations outlined in the affidavit. For example, Brave refuted the state’s allegation that the expenses he reported for events related to the “New England Sheriffs Association” were “fictitious.” He said he and others are “getting ready to start” such an organization.
Maglaras added to the allegations against Brave on Monday, saying that the big-spending sheriff had recently used his county-issued credit card at a night club in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Brave told the Globe that he had visited the Attika Restaurant and Club in Lawrence and used his county credit card for food. Alcohol was purchased with a separate card, in keeping with county policy, he said. No coworkers or employees joined him at the establishment, he said. But he didn’t say who was with him, and he didn’t respond when asked what official business he was conducting there.
After the commissioners formalized their decision Monday with a unanimous vote, they took questions from members of the public, including from some community members who expressed frustration that county officials hadn’t moved to cut Brave off sooner.
This article has been updated with news of Brave’s leave of absence.