NHPR Plans New Series on Eric Spofford, Newly Filed Brief in Defamation Lawsuit Reveals

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Eric Spofford

By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org

Eric Spofford filed a brief Thursday telling the judge in his defamation lawsuit against New Hampshire Public Radio that they are producing a new podcast series about him that will include the past false allegations of sexual misconduct, a new accuser and stated NHPR has refused to interview him beforehand.

Spofford claims NHPR’s recent request for comment for the new podcast “confirms the limited discovery Eric seeks will reveal additional evidence for Eric to allege actual malice in the amended complaint,” according to the brief filed by his attorney, Michael Strauss, to support a previous motion seeking partial discovery in the case.

Over NHPR’s objection, Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Dan St. Hilaire has already granted Spofford more time to submit an amended defamation complaint against NHPR to focus on allegations of actual malice.

St. Hilaire ruled in NHPR’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit before trial that Spofford is a limited public figure. St. Hilaire dismissed the lawsuit April 17, but gave Spofford 30 days to amend his original complaint and then extended that time in an order dated May 15.

For defamation claims to succeed against public figures, they must prove actual malice, that the reporters knew or should have known what they reported was false. St. Hilaire said in dismissing the lawsuit that Spofford hadn’t reached that bar.

Spofford had argued that it is up to a jury, not a judge to determine who is a public figure.

NHPR’s attorney Sigmund Schutz acknowledged Thursday that the court granted NHPR’s motion to dismiss but gave him the chance to file an amended complaint.

“That is not uncommon,” Schutz said in an email to InDepthNH.org seeking his comment.

“The usual next steps would have been filing an appeal or an amended complaint.  Instead, Mr. Spofford moved to conduct discovery. 

“As far as I am aware no New Hampshire court has allowed discovery in a lawsuit after it has been dismissed.  The judge will have to decide whether to allow that extraordinary relief in this case,” Schutz said.

According to NH.gov, discovery is the formal process by which the parties in court exchange information about the case.

Schutz also addressed the new podcast and the reporter seeking comment from Spofford.

“As for the podcast, NHPR engaged in nothing other than standard journalistic practice of asking for comment. That is not ‘discovery.’  Any source (and the subject of any story) always has the choice whether to provide comment or not,” Schutz said.

Schutz said that NHPR agreed that Spofford could record any interview.

“NHPR was not prepared to enter an advance agreement to publish an entire unedited interview.  A major reason for that is simply that Mr. Spofford could say anything about anyone. NHPR never allows sources to dictate that it include all of the content of their statement/interview in its stories.

“Because NHPR refused his conditions, Mr. Spofford refused to provide an interview or comment aside from what you’ve seen,” Schutz said referring to attachments to Spofford’s brief.

In an email May 18 to Spofford regarding the upcoming podcast series, NHPR reporter Lauren Chooljian sought comment from him by May 24. Spofford responded that he would be happy to sit down with her on two conditions – one that he could record the interview and two, that NHPR agree to publish the complete interview, which NHPR refused.

On May 23, Chooljian emailed Spofford: “It appears you are declining my offer to do a phone interview today at 3….

“Again as a news organization, NHPR doesn’t give the subjects of its stories editorial control over their content. So agreeing in advance to publish an entire unedited interview is not something we do.”

The new podcast series will include allegations against Spofford already published March 22, 2022 by NHPR then broaden “to explore nationally relevant context about addiction, sexual misconduct and the treatment industry,” Chooljian told Spofford.

Chooljian, reporter Jason Moon and editor Dan Barrick are named along with NHPR in Spofford’s defamation lawsuit.

Spofford, the founder and former owner of Granite Recovery Centers, a self-described recovering alcoholic and heroin addict, has sold the Granite Recovery Centers for an undisclosed sum.

 In his dismissal order April 17, St. Hilaire pointed to Spofford’s former status as a leader in the substance abuse disorder community testifying before the U.S. Senate and co-authoring a book on recovery as well as describing connections to former Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Chris Sununu arising from his recovery expertise.

“In the court’s view Spofford cannot simultaneously claim that he had a nationally prominent reputation based on his inspirational story of recovery while also arguing he is not a public figure in the controversy surrounding opioid addiction,” St. Hilaire wrote.

Had St. Hilaire not ruled Spofford a limited public figure, he would have had a lower burden of proof to prove defamation.

Chooljian told Spofford, “And while our sources ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Employee A’ do not allege any additional wrongdoing in this podcast, we welcome any further comment you would like to offer. In the podcast, their stories will be presented with more context and additional corroboration. The podcast will also take a more in-depth look at your history and the origins of Granite Recovery Centers.”

Chooljian said there will be a new accuser under the pseudonym Andrea who “says that she met (Spofford) in 2009 at a 12-step meeting. She says you asked her, via social media, to send you intimate photos of herself — and she did. She expresses regret about her actions – she was trying to stop drinking, and extremely vulnerable time in her life. She says you took advantage of her obvious lack of self-esteem. Do you have any response to this?”

 Chooljian wrote: “Andrea describes your behavior as ‘13th stepping’ and says you ‘really had it down to a science.’ We have corroborated her story with someone whom she told at the time. Do you have any response?”

Chooljian went on to say that the new podcast “presents evidence that 13th stepping can be harmful in all its forms, and that it is common in recovery communities and treatment facilities. As someone involved in the addiction treatment industry, do you view 13th stepping as an obstacle to recovery?”

Chooljian said many of the sources she spoke with say the addiction treatment industry needs more “professionalization.”

“These same experts also believe that lived experience (i.e. one’s own addiction experience) is extremely valuable, but not enough on its own. You do not have any degrees, and stated in a 2018 speech at GRC that ‘nobody is more qualified to help addicts besides recovered addicts.’”

She also asked him to comment on allegations that his defamation lawsuit involving the Oct. 22, 2022  story were his attempts at discrediting sources and shutting down any future reporting by NHPR and to scare additional women from coming forward.

“In the podcast, we will describe the outcome of the lawsuit you filed. Do you have any comment on its dismissal? Do you intend to appeal the decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court?” Chooljian asked.

In his brief Thursday, Spofford’s attorney Strauss wrote: “All this is relevant to the court’s ruling on the motion because NHPR is using its credentials as a news organization to seek discovery from Eric and third parties while precluding him from accessing discovery from it and its sources. But in publishing a new podcast series about Eric, NHPR and Chooljian have revealed there is more information in their possession that would demonstrate their actual malice. The Court thus should grant Eric access to that information so he can fairly amend his complaint, include additional allegations of actual malice (though he believes he has sufficiently alleged actual malice already), and hold NHPR, its reporters, and sources accountable for their false and defamatory statements about him.”

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