NHPR, Eric Spofford Spar Over Judge’s Order To Turn Over Interviews in Defamation Case

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NHPR reporter/producer Lauren Chooljian. She, Jason Moon and Dan Barrick were sued by Eric Spofford, the founder and former owner of Granite Recovery Centers.

By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org

Attorneys for Eric Spofford and New Hampshire Public Radio continue to spar over a judge’s order requiring interviews and documents supporting last year’s story that Spofford claims defamed him be turned over to the judge for private review.

Judge Daniel St. Hilaire dismissed Spofford’s defamation lawsuit April 17, but allowed him to amend his original complaint to focus on actual malice by NHPR, two of its reporters and an editor in their reporting.

Spofford’s lawyer Michael Strauss instead filed a motion for partial discovery, arguing he needed the information that only NHPR has in its possession for him to show malice.

St. Hilaire granted most of Strauss’ motion and told NHPR what it must turn over to the judge which includes tens of thousands of documents, interviews and emails between the reporters and management that could reflect on the credibility of their sources.

Attorney Sigmund Schutz argued for NHPR last week that the judge should vacate or modify his order in light of new information in the case – the arrests of three men who were charged two weeks ago for allegedly vandalizing homes associated with the lead reporter Lauren Chooljian and editor Dan Barrick retaliating against them because of the story.

The men allegedly conspired with an unidentified man who wasn’t charged, who has close ties to Spofford, according to federal documents.

The March 22, 2022 story accused Spofford, the founder and former owner of Granite Recovery Centers, of sexually harassing one former client and sexually assaulting two former GRC employees.

Spofford, a successful businessman, built his reputation and addiction recovery business while in long-term recovery himself from heroin addiction.

His connections to Gov. Chris Sununu and other prominent officials, prompted St. Hilaire to declare Spofford a public figure. St. Hilaire said he dismissed Spofford’s suit before trial because he didn’t show actual malice, which would be required to prevail in a suit against a public figure. St. Hilaire gave Spofford 30 days to amend his complaint to include allegations of malice.

Spofford has insisted he has done nothing wrong. He hasn’t been charged in the vandalism case, nor was he charged with any crime related to the alleged harassment and sexual assaults.

The suit names NHPR, Chooljian, Barrick, and Jason Moon and several of the story’s sources.

Schutz also argued Spofford should pay for the costs associated with compiling the documents the judge ordered, including attorney’s fees.

Strauss argued in an objection filed Monday night that Spofford has not engaged in any conduct warranting such a sanction.

He called NHPR’s motion an untimely effort to seek reconsideration of St. Hilaire’s discovery order.

Spofford contends that NHPR’s reporting about him was knowingly or recklessly false. NHPR has stood behind its story.

“Before the story was published, Eric’s counsel sought to educate NHPR that its proposed reporting would be false and defamatory. NHPR nonetheless proceeded with its story and Eric sued – as is his right.

“Eric, through his counsel, has pursued and will continue pursuing his rights using the ordinary and available tools of civil litigation—including a jury trial—to hold NHPR and its reporters accountable for destroying his reputation,” Strauss wrote.

Strauss acknowledged the criminal complaint unsealed on June 16 charges three men in a conspiracy to commit interstate stalking in retaliation for NHPR’s reporting about Spofford.

“It is equally true, however, that the government has not alleged that Eric knew about or joined in that conspiracy.

“NHPR’s recklessness in suggesting otherwise mirrors the reporting that gave rise to this case,” Strauss wrote.

“They say this Court should find Eric is litigating in bad faith and, therefore, sanction him by vacating its discovery order or, alternatively, shifting all the expenses incurred for complying with the discovery order to Eric.”

Schutz shot back Wednesday in a response filed in Rockingham Superior Court saying Spofford’s objection misconstrues the pending motion.

“The motion does not ask the Court to sanction Spofford, but to reweigh the equities that led it to a novel exercise of its discretionary case-management authority in light of significant new information.

 “This is not about whether Spofford should be sanctioned; it is about whether he should receive what NHPR believes is unwarranted special treatment,” Schutz wrote.

“For the Court to conclude that such discovery is no longer warranted or that further cost-shifting is appropriate under the emerging circumstances would not be to resolve doubt against Spofford, but simply to decline to give him unprecedented treatment, at NHPR’s expense, that he has not earned,” Schutz wrote.

If St. Hilaire finds what he calls actual malice while reviewing the NHPR interviews and documents, they could be turned over to the parties in the case, after they are given a chance to object.

St. Hilaire defined actual malice previously as requiring “’a reckless disregard for the truth,’ or a ‘subjective awareness of probable falsity’ shown through ‘sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendants in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of (their) publication.’”

Schutz said the NHPR defendants have to potentially review over 120,000 documents. The cost could be $15,000 or more and about $20,000 in attorney time.

That is on top of the approximately $10,000 or greater cost of transcribing the many hours of interviews that the court has already ordered Spofford to pay.

NHPR’s Chooljian recently released a seven-part podcast call The 13th Step expanding on Spofford’s story to include allegations of lack of oversight at addiction recovery facilities.

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