Ex-Granite Recovery Centers CEO Sues for Defamation; NHPR Defends Reporting

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NHPR website photo by Sheryl Senter

NHPR office in Concord

By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org

New Hampshire Public Radio is defending its reporting on former Granite Recovery Centers CEO Eric Spofford who sued the station, its news director and two reporters for a story and podcast accusing him of sexual misconduct.

The brief statement from NHPR consultant Jayme Simoes was emailed to InDepthNH.org after requesting comment:

“NHPR stands by its reporting and will vigorously defend our journalism.”

Spofford filed the lawsuit Sept. 20 in Rockingham County Superior Court claiming NHPR’s story and podcast defamed him and damaged his reputation by falsely claiming Spofford sexually assaulted two former employees and sexually harassed a client the day after she left treatment.

The lawsuit names senior reporters Lauren Chooljian as the writer of the article and podcast and Jason Moon for contributing to the reporting and news director Dan Barrick for his involvement in the reporting and approval of the story before publication.

“On March 22, 2022, NHPR published a hit piece about Eric. The clickbait title Used — He built New Hampshire’s largest addiction treatment network, Now, he faces accusations of sexual misconduct—amounted to a claim that Eric had been criminally charged for committing sex crimes,” the lawsuit states.

“From top to bottom, both the article and the podcast falsely state and imply that Eric sexually harassed one woman (pseudonym, “Elizabeth”) and sexually assaulted two others (pseudonyms, “Employee A” and “Employee B”),” according to the lawsuit filed by attorneys Michael Strauss of Spofford Enterprises in Salem, and Howard Cooper of Todd and Weld in Boston.

The lawsuit claims Chooljian was “in pursuit of her own personal acclaim” and NHPR planned to use the story to bolster fundraising.

NHPR knew or recklessly disregarded that these claims were false, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit also sued three sources NHPR used in reporting the story.

Spofford is well-known in New Hampshire, especially in the recovery community as long-term recovering heroin addict who built the state’s largest addiction treatment network, which he sold to a Texas-based treatment company in 2021 for an undisclosed price.

After the sale, Spofford reportedly bought a Miami, Fla., home for $20.75 million and now splits his time between Miami and Windham, where he lives with his father and two sons.

The lawsuit claims NHPR knew or recklessly disregarded “that Elizabeth and Employee A were dishonest, unreliable, and motivated to harm Eric’s reputation” and published Employee B’s allegations without interviewing her.

NHPR knew that Lynsie Metivier was the director of Human Resources for GRC during the period when the sexual misconduct allegedly occurred but didn’t speak with her for the story, the lawsuit alleges.

It also claims that the day the story was published Metivier called Chooljian and provided credible information that undermined the accuracy of the story. Metivier confirmed, the lawsuit said, that while she was director of Human Resources from Oct. 2017-Feb. 2020, she never heard any claims, complaints, or rumors from GRC employees that Spofford had sexually harassed or assaulted them.

According to the lawsuit, NHPR suppressed Metivier’s information as well as a retraction by Piers Kaniuka, who was “an authoritative source who, they erroneously trusted, knew Eric well enough to credibly criticize him and compare him to the likes of Harvey Weinstein.”

“Kaniuka’s lies are at the center of the article and podcast,” the lawsuit says.

On May 17, Kaniuka told NHPR’s Board of Trustees and Chooljian that he was writing to clarify and correct statements he made that were included in the story.

“Specifically, I am concerned with your use of my statement comparing Mr. Spofford to Harvey Weinstein and my statement that Mr. Spofford should be prosecuted,” Kaniuka wrote.

Kaniuka said he thought he would be able to vet his comments before publication.

“I regret making those statements. I did not have any direct personal knowledge concerning any sexual abuse, misconduct, or other inappropriate behavior by Mr. Spofford with employees, clients, or former clients,” Kaniuka wrote. His letter is filed as an attachment to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says NHPR has known about Kaniuka’s retraction since May 17, but hasn’t made it public. It was mentioned, however in a NHPR story about the lawsuit Wednesday.

Representing NHPR on May 19, Sigmund D. Schutz of the PretiFlaherty firm in Maine, wrote attorney Benjamin Levine who had written Schutz on Spofford’s behalf on May 18. Levine represented Spofford during the pre-suit negotiations, but is not part of the trial team.

“The article is based on countless hours of reporting, careful due diligence by NHPR’s investigative journalists, and interviews with nearly 50 former clients, current and past employees, and others in New Hampshire’s recovery community. The article provides firsthand accounts that Mr. Spofford sent unsolicited, explicit Snapchat messages, including a photo of a penis and invitations to meet for sex, to a patient one day after she left treatment; multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr. Spofford; and abusive leadership practices and acts of retaliation by Mr. Spofford while he was CEO,” Schutz wrote.

Kaniuka’s letter required NHPR to immediately take down the article, the lawsuit said. Schutz disagreed.

“In his letter Mr. Kaniuka confirms that he made the statements attributed to him by NHPR,” Schutz wrote.

“He does not dispute the accuracy of any of the information in the article. Nor could he dispute any of the firsthand accounts of sexual misconduct, as he acknowledges in his letter that he lacks ‘direct personal knowledge.’ NHPR did not report that Mr. Kaniuka was a witness to the sexual incidents described in the article.

“…Mr. Kaniuka does say that he regrets what he said, but he does not deny having said it. His regret appears to be the product of legal demands by you or other lawyers working for Mr. Spofford. You write that Mr. Spofford did not pay for Mr. Kaniuka’s letter, but his letter cannot have been just a spontaneous act of contrition,” Schutz wrote.

Schutz went on: “As I’m sure you know, should Mr. Spofford file any legal claim, he will run into a buzzsaw called the First Amendment. To state the obvious, Mr. Spofford is a public figure, and NHPR’s article concerns matters of public concern. The article is therefore entitled to the highest level of constitutional protection.”

Schutz concluded: “Mr. Kaniuka’s letter doesn’t actually deny or retract anything. Please immediately withdraw your letter and confirm that your firm and Mr. Spofford will not be making further demands on NHPR. Please also refrain from harassing NHPR’s sources.”

 The lawsuit also alleges that the NHPR defendants reported on acts of vandalism that allegedly occurred at homes connected to NHPR employees who were involved in the Spofford story.

 Although the alleged vandalism first occurred in April 2022, the NHPR defendants and a freelance reporter working for them did not report about the vandalism until late May 2022, according to the lawsuit.

“They knowingly weaponized a conspiratorial connection between Eric and the alleged vandalism as a means for the NHPR defendants to deflect from their suppression of the Kaniuka retraction,” the lawsuit alleges.

 “There was not a scintilla of evidence connecting Eric to the alleged vandalism—the alleged vandal was caught on camera and was very obviously not Eric. Yet the only false implication from NHPR’s story about the vandalism was that Eric was the culprit,” the lawsuit said.

Spofford has lost his status as a leader in the substance use disorder recovery industry, according to the lawsuit.

“He has had financial institutions decline to do business with him, he has had vendors abruptly resign from working with his companies, and he has been distanced from working with New Hampshire politicians,” the lawsuit alleges.

“He no longer feels welcome in New Hampshire—the state where he was born, raised, recovered from addiction, and then helped combat the opioid epidemic. His 11-year-old son has been ridiculed because of, and exposed to, defendants’ false and defamatory statements.”

Attorney Strauss said in a telephone interview that Spofford lives in Windham with his father and two sons, ages 11 and one.

“Why Eric brought this lawsuit is principally driven by his children, his two sons,” said Strauss. “They don’t deserve to grow up with this dark cloud hanging over their name that should never have been there in the first place.

“The why that motivates Eric is to protect his family and his name,” Strauss said.

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