inside sources print logo
Get up to date New Hampshire news in your inbox

No NHPR Malice Found in Spofford Case

There is no evidence that NHPR reporters acted with malice when reporting on sexual misconduct allegations against former Granite Recovery Centers CEO Eric Spofford.

Rockingham Superior Court Judge Daniel St. Hilaire ruled Spofford’s latest bid to find evidence to support his defamation lawsuit against the public broadcaster failed. 

St. Hilaire came to his Dec. 13 decision after reviewing thousands of documents provided by NHPR detailing the station’s reporting on the stories. 

“Having now completed this review, the court concludes that the documents produced contain no evidence that any of the NHPR defendants acted with actual malice,” St. Hilaire wrote.

Spofford’s attorney, Michael Strauss, did not respond to a request for comment.

St. Hilaire dismissed Spofford’s lawsuit this year, finding he had not provided any evidence in his 300-plus page complaint to back his defamation claims. However, Spofford was allowed to refile the complaint, presuming he could produce evidence of malice. 

That opened the door for Spofford to seek reporting notes and interview transcripts in a search for evidence against NHPR. Spofford’s search came up empty, according to St. Hilaire. The judge looked at all the documents “in camera,” outside the public court procedures.

Spofford claimed NHPR’s Lauren Chooljian targeted him with false stories that he sexually harassed a former client and sexually assaulted at least two former employees because he was a prominent Republican. According to documents Spofford’s legal team filed in court, Chooljian knowingly relied on sketchy and biased sources to put together the damning reports, demonstrating reckless disregard for the truth, one of the necessary elements for Spofford’s case.

But. St. Hilaire wrote there was no evidence to support Spofford’s claims that Chooljian turned a blind eye to biased sources feeding her lies.

“The court has found no indication that Chooljian or other NHPR Defendants possessed knowledge that their reporting was false, acted with reckless disregard of its falsity, or entertained doubts as to the truth of their publication,” St. Hilaire wrote. 

In fact, according to St. Hilaire, the documents he reviewed showed Chooljian and other NHPR reporters focused on getting the facts.

“In short, the in-camera review documents reflect professional and diligent reporting and are totally devoid of any evidence that the NHPR defendants had reason to doubt the truth of their publication. While Spofford maintains that the accusations against him are baseless and entirely fabricated, the in-camera review documents contain absolutely no evidence of falsity. On this record, Spofford has no viable basis to sue the NHPR defendants or their sources,” St. Hilaire wrote.

St. Hilaire is again giving Spofford 30 days to bring an amended complaint that contains evidence to back his defamation case but wrote that based on the documents he reviewed, “any amendment will likely be futile.” 

Outside the lawsuit, Spofford has been linked to one of the suspects in the vandalism targeting Chooljian and other NHPR reporters. Spofford is not accused of taking part in the vandalism conspiracy.

Eric Labarge, 46, was charged in September for allegedly conspiring to vandalize the homes of Chooljian, NHPR journalist Dan Barrick, and their families. Larbarge allegedly coordinated the vandalism with codefendants Tucker Cockerline, 32, of Salem, Michael Waselchuck, 35, of Seabrook, and Keenan Saniatan, 36, of Nashua.

Labarge, himself the owner of several recovery centers, is described by federal prosecutors as Spofford’s “close personal associate.”

Spofford’s Attorney Tells Judge NHPR Engaged in ‘Reckless Disregard’ of Facts

Despite hundreds of pages of evidence already submitted by Granite State Recovery founder Eric Spofford’s legal team, New Hampshire Public Radio says none of it adds up to malice, the key component for a defamation case.

“Zero plus zero still equals zero,” said Sigmund Schutz, NHPR’s attorney during Tuesday’s hearing in Rockingham Superior Court.

Spofford filed the defamation lawsuit against NHPR in October, claiming the public radio station ruined his life and career when it reported a story in which three women accused him of sexual harassment and assault. NHPR is trying to get the case dismissed before it can go to trial, arguing that Spofford aims to silence any critic who might come forward against him.

“This kind of lawsuit has a real chilling effect,” Schutz said. “The objective of this litigation is that just by filing, win or lose, is to silence critics,” Schutz said.

Howard Cooper, representing Spofford, said a trial is needed so a jury can weigh in on the radio station’s reporting, which he characterized as reckless at best.

“This case is about the intentional ignoring of the facts pre, during, and post-publication,” Cooper said. “There is no constitutional value in defamatory speech, and there is no chilling effect by requiring the media not to make up facts.”

Schutz said NHPR reporter Lauren Chooljian thoroughly reported, corroborated, and documented the story, which was published online in March, and the subject of over-the-air broadcast reports and podcasts. In the story, a former Granite State Recovery client and two former employees alleged they were harassed. The employees alleged that they were sexually assaulted.

At no point did NHPR report that Spofford was guilty of any crime when it laid out the women’s story, Schutz said. Schutz said that Spofford was given ample opportunity to comment on the story as it was being reported, and his denials of the accusations were reported.

“(Spofford) can deny the accusations are true, but he can’t deny that the accusations were made,” Schutz said.

But Cooper claimed NHPR’s reporting process is dubious, leaving out key details and using suspect sources to corroborate the story it wanted to tell.

In one instance, NHPR reported Spofford sent pictures of his penis to one of the women using Snap Chat, despite the reporter never seeing the photos for herself. She relied on claims from the alleged victims.

“That is so outrageous and improbable, no responsible news organization or reporter would have reported that,” Cooper said.

Another breach in NHPR’s reporting happened when former Granite State Recovery Human Resources Director Lynsie Miterer called Chooljian after one part of the story aired to correct her reporting on one of the accusations of sexual assault. Cooper said Chooljian reacted with hostility and never used any of the information from Miterer that challenged the reporting.

There is also the matter of the third alleged victim, known in the story as Employee B. NHPR reported Employee B claimed she was sexually assaulted by Spofford, but Chooljian never spoke to that woman. Instead, the reporter spoke to other people who claimed to have corroborating information.

“They should not have reported that,” Cooper said.

Cooper said the totality of the evidence already gathered shows sources who were ignored when they contradicted NHPR’s storyline, and weak corroboration, was used to push a narrative. All of it, he said, adds up to a case that needs to go to trial.

“This story never should have been published, reporters knew or recklessly disregarded facts that were staring them in the face and given to them,” Cooper said.

Judge Dan St. Hilaire will now consider the arguments from both sides. He is expected to make a ruling sometime in the next 30 days. If he finds for Spofford, NHPR would find itself before a jury to defend how it reports the news.