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Judge orders NHPR to turn over unpublished reporter material in defamation lawsuit

Photo of the exterior of the Rockingham County Courthouse
Todd Bookman/NHPR News

Less than two months after dismissing a defamation lawsuit filed by the founder of a chain of substance misuse recovery centers, a Superior Court judge is now ordering New Hampshire Public Radio to turn over certain transcripts and notes to determine if they contain evidence of malice.

Eric Spofford, who founded and later sold Granite Recovery Centers, sued NHPR last year after it published an investigation describing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. In April, Judge Dan St. Hilaire dismissedthe case, writing in an opinion that no evidence presented in Spofford’s allegations rose to the standard of actual malice, the necessary legal burden.

Spofford then requested the court to force lead reporter Lauren Chooljian to disclose her notes and raw interviews, including with sources who were not named in the story, so that he could look for any previously undisclosed evidence of alleged malice and refile his petition. NHPR opposed the request, arguing in court documents that giving access to a reporter’s materials at this stage in a civil case “may threaten First Amendment values and have a chilling effect on constitutionally protected freedoms.”

In aruling this week, St. Hilaire said that he would review the requested material in camera, or in private, to determine if NHPR “displayed a reckless disregard for the truth by reporting a story they knew or suspected was false.” The court noted that it would provide NHPR a chance to appeal the release of any materials, should the court deem those materials subject to disclosure.

“Both sides raise weighty considerations,” St. Hilaire wrote. “The court finds that an in camera review of the materials would properly address the parties’ respective concerns, enabling identification of any materials relevant to actual malice without permitting a fishing expedition that could harm constitutional freedoms.”

The court is limiting the discovery request to a transcript and any notes associated with interviews with two sources who were granted anonymity in the story, as well as with several other on-the-record sources. Records of internal discussions amongst NHPR staff regarding the credibility of the sources are also now subject to disclosure.

Spofford is being ordered to pay for the costs of any transcription services.

Spofford, who drew on his story of addiction and recovery to become a prominent figure in New Hampshire’s substance misuse community, has claimed on social media that he sold Granite Recovery Centers for “9 figures.” He frequently poses with a private jet and luxury yacht, and now offers business and life coaching services.

Chooljian’s original article alleged that while he was CEO of the recovery centers, he engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct and threats of retaliation with two former female employees and a female client.

Spofford has repeatedly denied any allegations of sexual misconduct.

After the initial report was published, Chooljian’s residence in Massachusetts, along with a previous residence in Hampstead, New Hampshire and the home of another NHPR employee in Concord, were vandalized.

Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan announced during the investigation that her office would look into NHPR’s reporting as a possible factor in the attack. That investigation remains ongoing. Spofford has denied any involvement in the vandalism.

Editor’s note: In keeping with NHPR’s practice around reporting on internal matters, no other NHPR staff or leadership reviewed this story prior to publication. The story was edited by Cori Princell of the New England News Collaborative.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.

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