This story can get a bit complicated, but it's possible to sum it up in one sentence: A teacher at a prestigious New England prep school has admitted to sexual misconduct, and Republicans are questioning how much New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) knew about it — especially since her husband was head of the school at the time.
It's become clearer in recent days that Hassan, a popular two-term governor who's running for a competitive Senate seat in November, could have a political problem on her hands by way of her connection to a disgraced Phillips Exeter Academy history teacher and how her husband handled the allegations.
Both Hassans have apologized since the news broke — him for how the school handled the revelations, her for keeping the teacher on a list of supporters after he departed, even though she says she was unaware of the reason for his departure.
Underlying all of it, of course, is the fact that Democrats are counting on Hassan to oust Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in November. Winning the seat in New Hampshire is a crucial piece of Democrats' path to take back control of the Senate next year. It could even be the decisive race.
It's too soon to tell how much of a factor — if any — the Phillips Exeter scandal could figure into this fall's increasingly competitive battle for Senate. But given New Hampshire's outsized role in determining the fate of the Senate, it's a safe bet that what happens in the state will be under a microscope.
So let's take a few minutes to run down what happened and the politics of it all.
In 2011, longtime Phillips Exeter teacher Rick Schubart admitted to sexual misconduct with two students in the 1970s and '80s. The person he admitted it to was Maggie Hassan's husband, Tom Hassan, who said he immediately went to the police to report it.
But within the confines of the school, the misconduct largely flew under the radar. In the middle of the school year, Schubart promptly and abruptly retired and moved off campus, though he was allowed to continue advising student groups and keep his emeritus status. Phillips Exeter officials publicly said Schubart resigned for medical and personal reasons, according to the Boston Globe's Spotlight team (yes, that Spotlight team), which had recently been investigating claims against the teacher.
Maggie Hassan, who would be elected governor a year later, was living on campus at the time with her husband. She told WMUR on Friday that she "sensed something was wrong because of the teacher's abrupt departure" but that she didn't have enough information to know what was going on. She and her husband both have jobs that require confidentiality even within the marriage, she said by way of explanation.
The connection to Hassan's campaign
It's what happened next in this story that has caused both Hassans to apologize, and has made this into a political issue.
In 2012, the world's organization for boarding schools — literally called the Association of Boarding Schools — gave Schubart a leadership award, apparently unaware of the sexual misconduct he had admitted to just a year earlier. As news of his sexual misconduct broke Thursday, the association stripped Schubart of the award and censured Tom Hassan for not telling them about it.
That same year, Maggie Hassan was making her first run for governor. During the campaign, she listed Schubart as one of hundreds of community leaders who supported her. (Some in New Hampshire interpret a specific 2012 campaign email as indicating Schubart sat on one of her campaign's steering committees — a leadership role. Others think the email just indicated he was a supporter.)
She also accepted relatively small campaign donations from him. WMUR reports that Schubart and his wife donated $375 to Hassan's various campaigns for office since 2002. Hassan suggested to NH1 News that combing through campaign donations to find him and remove him would have been unreasonable: "I have thousands of donors, and also I didn’t have any specific information I could have shared with staff to indicate taking him off."
Tom Hassan served as principal of the school from 2009 to June 2015. At some point in 2015 — it's not clear when — Schubart admitted to another case of sexual misconduct. Schubart is now barred from campus.
Let's review Tom Hassan's comments first.
Since this story broke, he has maintained that he and school officials reacted the way they did — quietly letting Schubart retire — because they were "attempting to balance the privacy and wishes of the victim with the utmost need to ensure the safety of members of the community."
He gave that explanation in a statement after the boarding school association censured him. It goes on: "It’s clear in retrospect that we didn’t get that balance right. We should have taken additional action to ensure transparency and accountability at that time, and I join Phillips Exeter Academy in apologizing for an inadequate response and I accept the decision of The Association of Boarding Schools board."
The current head of the school also issued a statement expressing regret about the way things were handled and said the school is hiring an independent investigator to look into even more allegations of misconduct — it's not clear whom they involve — that have since surfaced. Exeter police said this week that they are investigating four additional allegations related to the school.
Maggie Hassan's apology
After defending her decision to keep Schubart on her list of campaign supporters, Maggie Hassan has since apologized for keeping him on that list. She told NH1 News: "I did sense that something was wrong when Mr. Schubart abruptly left campus, and I should have worked more actively to review my public supporter and steering committee lists and remove him from it and I apologize for that."
Her campaign is also donating $1,000 to HAVEN, a nonprofit domestic violence and sexual abuse prevention and counseling program in the state.
Hassan is in a potentially awkward position of having to call for a review of how her husband handled the sexual misconduct allegations — although the following statement could be interpreted as her calling for a review of how prep schools handle these kinds of allegations in general:
"I think it is also clear that in balancing privacy and transparency, the school didn't get it quite right," she told reporters this week. "And both the school and my husband have apologized for that, and I think it'd be very appropriate for a review to take place."
From the Hassan campaign's point of view, the story and her connection to it end here. Republicans, of course, disagree. At first, they seemed content to let this play out in public largely without comment but have started wading into it. "There certainly are questions that need to be answered by [Hassan] about this whole matter. And she’s given some inconsistent answers," Ayotte told Politico recently.
Republicans are closely watching to see if Hassan makes any missteps they could hammer home in the election.
Already, Phillips Exeter has been a distraction from what Hassan wants to focus on. On Tuesday, she celebrated a political and policy victory by signing a Medicaid expansion into law that she says will help ease the state's opiate crisis. But on the same day, she also had to answer reporters' questions about Schubart.
Time will tell whether this is an April news story that fades soon after or an April surprise that changes the narrative of one of the nation's most competitive Senate races.