DOVER, N.H. — By the time the Strafford County commissioners gave Sheriff Mark Brave an ultimatum last week to step aside voluntarily as he faces criminal charges, his office was on the brink of a mass resignation.
That’s what county officials said Friday during a frank meeting with more than a dozen state lawmakers, who pressed for answers and further action after Brave was engulfed in a scandal over his spending on frequent taxpayer-funded travels, steak dinners, and meet-ups with romantic partners.
County Attorney Thomas P. Velardi said the sheriff’s office was “tearing itself apart,” as Brave repeatedly refused to place himself on paid administrative leave. Brave’s recalcitrance risked undermining public respect for his office, and potential lawsuits were mounting, Velardi said.
“There was an extreme urgency to find a way to neutralize this situation, both for the staff as well as, frankly, for Sheriff Brave,” he said.
“There were exigent critical issues with staff that were happening in real time that would have been a very bad situation if he had stayed on just even for a couple more days,” he added.
Brave relented Monday, Aug. 21, agreeing to a leave of absence that satisfied the commissioners’ ultimatum and avoided an effort to remove him from office. He signed a written agreement Wednesday to formalize the terms of his leave, which include relinquishing his authority to act on behalf of his office or the county in any way.
“I’m telling you,” Velardi said, “it was just in time before we might have lost a significant portion of that office.”
Chief Deputy Joseph T. McGivern, who is helming the sheriff’s office while Brave is on leave, agreed with Velardi’s remarks. The office was at “a critical point” and headed for an imminent “implosion,” as Brave was making decisions that would have sent the office into a tailspin last week, he said.
“I fully believed in my heart that the office would have completely imploded by Wednesday, including myself,” McGivern told the lawmakers. “We would have all been out of there.”
Such a meltdown would have been practically impossible to repair, since law enforcement personnel are in high demand and could easily find work elsewhere, likely with a sign-on bonus, he said.
Those comments from Velardi and McGivern came during a public meeting of state representatives who sit on the Strafford County delegation’s 15-member executive committee. The lawmakers met with all three county commissioners, the county administrator, and others for a discussion that grew tense at times, as they questioned how Brave’s alleged misconduct could have gone on so long without detection.
Representative Kelley L. Potenza of Rochester said she and her fellow Republicans are calling for a meeting of the county’s full 38-member delegation to discuss the possibility of formally weighing in on Brave’s situation. Some of the Democrats on the committee expressed support for that idea as well. (Brave, the commissioners, and a majority of the county’s state representatives are Democrats.)
Potenza said she agrees with the course of action taken, but she worries about the public’s limited awareness of the facts in this case, especially since Brave has accused the commissioners of waging a targeted campaign against him.
“Perception is reality,” she said, describing the prospect of legislative involvement as a nonpartisan issue.
“We really have to pull back the curtain and make sure that the government is operating within the powers and the authority that they have,” she added.
For months, Brave has claimed publicly that he is the victim of a racist and politically motivated investigation. But other officials have refuted that claim, and the attorney general’s public integrity unit released details about the serious allegations that Brave faces. He’s accused of traveling for personal reasons then submitting falsified documentation to claim he was traveling for law enforcement purposes so taxpayers would foot the bill. He faces eight felonies, including five perjury counts for allegedly lying to a grand jury.
County Administrator Raymond F. Bower told the lawmakers that one employee has left the sheriff’s office since Brave stepped aside and another employee was demoted then tendered their resignation. “And if you read the affidavit, you can probably figure out who they are,” Bower added, referring to a 24-page document in which prosecutors detail their allegations against Brave.
In an interview, McGivern said two full-time deputies resigned very recently. They didn’t say whether their departures were related to Brave’s situation, he said.
McGivern said the sheriff’s decisions that fueled consternation included recent promotions.
Three controversial promotions
The controversial promotions that Brave pursued appear to include at least three employees.
Brave, who was arrested Aug. 17, told the Globe on Aug. 19 that he had been preparing to promote Deputy Anthony McKnight to the rank of major. Brave said he believes McKnight would be the first Black officer to hold that rank in New Hampshire, but officiating the swearing-in would risk contempt charges since a bail order prohibits him from having contact with McKnight.
“Anything they can do to stalemate anything to do with progressiveness, that’s what they’ve been doing,” Brave said.
The affidavit states that McKnight told the grand jury he would sometimes stay overnight with Brave at hotels in Boston to attend Celtics games using Brave’s season tickets. Prosecutors allege that Brave sought reimbursement related to such trips by claiming he had traveled for law enforcement purposes.
McKnight also testified that he had taken time off work in April for a last-minute personal trip with Brave to Fort Lauderdale. He said he didn’t do any work on the trip and gave the sheriff $600 in cash to help cover expenses. Brave then allegedly submitted fraudulent documentation for reimbursement, claiming the trip had been for a nonexistent conference with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, according to the affidavit.
McKnight appears to be one of the deputies who recently left the sheriff’s office. His profile on LinkedIn indicates that his employment ended this month. He did not respond to an interview request.
Brave said another employee, Freezenia Veras, was a friend of his since childhood. He said he helped her get hired in spring 2022 then promoted her in fall 2022 to a newly created position in which her salary was higher than his own base pay. Veras resigned after her new role came under scrutiny earlier this year. She did not respond to an interview request.
Brave promoted another deputy, Elizabeth Baez, to the rank of sergeant in late June. Baez said she has since been demoted but continues to be employed by the sheriff’s office. She declined an interview request.
Supporter turned whistleblower
Bower, the county administrator, told the lawmakers on Friday that auditors flagged questions about first-class plane tickets that Brave expensed for a trip to Fort Lauderdale in August 2022.
The county doesn’t allow first-class travel, so Bower confronted Brave about the airfare and the fact that he had booked just one room with a king-sized bed. At first, Brave claimed he had traveled with McKnight.
“When he indicated to me that he brought another gentleman with him, I tongue-in-cheek said, ‘Who cuddled who?’ because it was kind of a weird situation, and I was trying to get a response from him,” Bower said. “It just didn’t pass the smell test.”
Bower said Brave failed to offer a plausible explanation for the trip, so his suspicions grew, and he ultimately contacted the attorney general’s office in April to investigate.
“I’m not happy for what I had to do,” Bower said. “I was a supporter of Sheriff Brave, both when he ran for the city council and when he ran for sheriff. … I took no pleasure in turning him in. But I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.”
Brave later admitted that he had traveled with Veras, not McKnight, on that trip. He claimed the trip was a justified official expense for “work-related research” because they went to learn about a position in the Broward County Sheriff’s Office that would serve as a model for her new position. Brave is facing a perjury charge for allegedly lying to the grand jury about their sleeping arrangements. He and Veras have both denied engaging in sexual activity on the trip.
Brave maintains his innocence and contends that Strafford County officials are out to get him.
“I’m fighting the machine, and that machine is politicians that have been in this county for decades that want something done, so they’re using every avenue to get it done,” Brave said.
“I know I did nothing wrong. … I’m looking forward to getting my time in court,” he added.
To avoid any conflicts of interest with Strafford County Superior Court judges, Brave’s case has been assigned to a Rockingham County Superior Court judge. His arraignment is scheduled for Sept. 28.