By DAMIEN FISHER, InDepthNH.org
DERRY — Debra Paul didn’t use the magic words, and now the community newspaper publisher is facing jail time.
Now, whether or not she knew she was in the wrong is the question.
Paul went on trial Wednesday in the 10th Circuit Court in Derry on six criminal charges alleging she violated the state’s Identification of Political Advertising law. According to prosecutors, Paul repeatedly broke the law when publishing ads for local political candidates and warrant articles in the Londonderry Times and the Nutfield News.
Tony Naro, Paul’s attorney, said his client never meant to break the law, and she made repeated efforts to follow the instructions she got from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.
“Her intent is abundantly clear. Her intent was to comply with the law,” Naro said in his closing argument on Wednesday.
Paul’s failure to follow the law to the T is due to her faulty understanding, and not an attempt to subvert democracy, he said.
The state cannot prove Paul acted “knowingly,” the legal definition that she knew she was breaking the law and broke it anyway. Without that, Paul should be found not guilty, he said.
But Assistant Attorney General Matthew Conley argued ignorance of the law is no excuse, especially when Paul can’t exactly claim ignorance.
“This is a case where we can say with extreme confidence, not only was the conduct knowingly, but there was no way it should have gotten to this point,” Conley said.
The bench trial lasted until about noon on Wednesday. Judge Kerry Steckowych said he’d consider the arguments, testimony, and evidence before issuing a verdict. If Paul is found guilty, Steckowych will schedule a sentencing date. Each charge against Paul carries up to a year in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine.
Paul’s political ads were the subject of multiple reports to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office for years. She got warning letters in 2019 and 2021 about the way she was publishing ads, and the 2021 letter informed her that if she broke the law again she could face prosecution.
According to testimony, Paul struggled to handle the ads in early 2022. Paul operated the two newspapers with one employee, her husband Chris Paul. The mistakes she made during the runup to the 2022 municipal elections were not intentional, Naro said.
Every advertisement used by the prosecution to bring the charges is clearly a political ad for school board candidates, town council candidates, and warrant articles, according to Naro. Paul’s crime is that she did not make sure to have the words “paid political advertisement” in each ad that she printed. Many of the ads are labeled as being a “paid advertisement,” or an “advertisement.”
Conley said because Paul had been formally warned by the state twice, and even reviewed the law with one of her customers in 2022, she has no grounds to say she didn’t understand what she was doing.
Paul is in her 60s and was struggling with cancer and other serious health issues in early 2022, when she allegedly broke the law. Since the charges were brought, Paul has had to shut down the Nutfield News, Naro said.
Paul’s trouble with the law started as she made trouble as both publisher and a member of the Londonderry Town Council. A 2021 editorial she wrote called out local officials, though not by name.
“Are you frustrated that nobody at town hall is listening to you? Do you feel that your town or school officials have an excuse for everything or justify decisions you don’t agree with?” Paul wrote.
In the same editorial, Paul accused officials of acting like “spoiled children with platinum credit cards.”
At the time the editorial was published, Paul was a member of the Town Council. Then-Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith accused Paul of being a bully.
“Make no doubt, words matter,” Smith told the Eagle Tribune.
Smith made an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for United States Senate in 2022.
Paul also got on the wrong side of Londonderry Town Clerk Sherry Ferrell in 2018 over political advertising.
Paul’s Londonderry Times ran a front page article about local election campaign lawn signs that were breaking the law. The violation Paul’s paper targeted being the signs did not include the name and address of the person paying for the sign as required by law. Ferrell’s campaign signs were among those the Londonderry Times singled out. In the case, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office was contacted.
According to the affidavit written by Investigator Daniel Mederos, Laura Morin, Ferrell’s friend, emailed the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office in March of 2022 to complain about Paul’s newspaper ads.