Judge dismisses defamation lawsuit against New Hampshire Public Radio

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John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons

Rockingham County Courthouse in Brentwood, N.H.

A New Hampshire Superior Court judge has dismissed a defamation case against New Hampshire Public Radio brought by Eric Spofford, former CEO of a drug addiction recovery center who was the subject of an NHPR investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

Spofford, founder and CEO of Granite Recovery Centers from 2008 to 2021, filed suit in September 2022 against NHPR News Director Dan Barrick and Senior Reporters/Producers Lauren Chooljian and Jason Moon. Eric Spofford v. New Hampshire Public Radio, Inc. et al,  also aimed at sources in NHPR’s investigation: Nancy Bourque and Brian Stoesz, two former GRC employees, and Justin Downey, who corroborated one accuser’s claim. 

The civil lawsuit centered on NHPR’s investigation, “He built New Hampshire’s largest addiction treatment network. Now, he faces accusations of sexual misconduct,” published March 22, 2022, along with an accompanying podcast. Chooljian reported that Spofford had sexually harassed a former client and sexually assaulted two former employees. 

NHPR granted anonymity to the women and substantiated their allegations through interviews with nearly 50 sources. Sources in the investigation included former GRC clients, current and past GRC employees, and other people in the state’s recovery community, according to court documents.

GRC is the largest substance abuse treatment center in New Hampshire, operating nine rehabilitation facilities across the state. Spofford stepped down as CEO in March 2021. That December, he sold the company to BayMark Health Services, telling local reporters that he’d had a good career and “was looking for a change.”

But NHPR’s investigation detailed at least four staff members who quit GRC in 2020 after allegations of sexual misconduct against Spofford began to surface. Another GRC leader was fired amid the turmoil, NHPR reported.

Prominent expert on opioid crisis

NHPR’s report detailed Spofford’s prominence in New Hampshire political circles and his ballooning presence on social media, where he commanded more than 174,000 followers on an Instagram page that showed him perched on a private jet. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu once described Spofford as “one of the first guys I’ll pick up the phone” to discuss the opioid crisis with, NHPR reported.

In filings with the Rockingham County Superior Court of New Hampshire, Spofford attempted to argue that he was not a public figure. Private individuals do not have to meet the higher standards of proving actual malice in libel cases. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire weighed in on this point in an amicus brief filed in December 2022. The brief urged the court to dismiss Spofford’s case, arguing that his complaint failed to meet the legal standard of actual malice that would defame a public figure. Two New England newspaper publishers, the Union Leader Corporation and the Caledonian Record Publication Co., Inc., joined the ACLU’s brief along with the New England First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit made up of lawyers, journalists and academics dedicated to free speech and press issues in the region. 

In his April 17 ruling, New Hampshire Superior Court Judge Daniel St. Hilaire found NHPR’s sources to be credible and that its investigative reporting fell far short of actual malice. 

In his complaint, Spofford had attempted to discredit defendants who had worked with him at GRC: Bourque and Stoesz, as well as Piers Kaniuka, a former GRC employee who had also collaborated with Spofford on a 2019 book. But in his ruling, St. Hilaire found the biases and motives Spofford alleged for his former colleagues didn’t damage their credibility as sources in NHPR’s investigation. 

“If anything, the fact that Bourque, Stoesz and Kaniuka all appear to have quit or were fired from GRC in connection with these sexual misconduct allegations lends credence to their accounts,” St. Hilaire wrote.

St. Hilaire also rejected Spofford’s arguments that downplayed his role from public figure to private citizen. “In summation, by outwardly presenting himself as a national figure in the fight against opioid addiction and emphasizing the inspirational nature of his own story of recovery, Spofford voluntarily stepped into the midst of an ongoing controversy and assumed the risk of public discourse surrounding his conduct and his fitness as a leader in the field,” St. Hilaire wrote.

In a statement to Current, NHPR CEO Jim Schachter applauded St. Hilaire’s decision. The ruling “reinforces how important it is for responsible, independent journalists to have protection under the law to hold powerful people and institutions accountable,” he said.

“As it has through this litigation, NHPR stands by its journalists and will continue to vigorously defend their work,” an NHPR spokesperson said in an email to Current. 

The New Hampshire ACLU also responded to the ruling. “We’re pleased the Superior Court granted the motions to dismiss,” said Henry Klementowicz, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Hampshire. “The First Amendment and the protections it affords to a free press are an important part of our American democracy.”

St. Hilaire gave Spofford 30 days to amend his complaint and prove that NHPR’s journalists knowingly made false statements in their reporting. Spofford’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment at press time. 

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