In a front page story in its own paper, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus disclosed Thursday morning that it was aware of a reporter's history as a convicted sex offender when it hired and assigned him to cover cops and courts.
Veteran Times Argus and Rutland Herald reporter Susan Smallheer writes that the reporter in question, Eric Blaisdell, "immediately disclosed his criminal history" to Times Argus editor Steven Pappas when applying for the job in June. Smallheer writes:
Pappas said he had checked Blaisdell’s references and talked to the N.H. Department of Corrections. Everyone said that Blaisdell posed no risk to the general public, was contrite, and was working hard to put his life back together.
The 27-year-old reporter was arrested in 2007 after New Hampshire law enforcement officials and an online vigilante group both caught Blaisdell conversing online with individuals posing as underage girls. Blaisdell pled guilty to three charges of using the internet to solicit sex from minors and served more than eight months in prison; he remains on probation.
Smallheer quotes Times Argus and Rutland Herald publisher John Mitchell defending his company's decision to hire Blaisdell:
“I applaud the efforts of the criminal justice system in fairly administering punishment to those who have broken the law and also offering an opportunity for rehabilitation,” said publisher R. John Mitchell in a statement to The Times Argus and its sister publication, the Rutland Herald. “This is an incredibly well supervised and restricted situation by the judge, the probation officer and a therapist, I am not going to second guess that process, am willing to participate in it and give it a chance.”
Smallheer quotes two national media ethics experts — one of whom, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, was also quoted in the original Seven Days story — raising questions about the Times Argus's decision to let Blaisdell cover sex crimes and sex offenders. They also argue that the paper should have been more transparent about the situation with its audience.
Mitchell defended the Times Argus against the transparency charge, telling Smallheer, "The implication that we have been less than transparent is ridiculous and downright wrong. We have acted and will continue to act in the best interests of our community, our integrity and the rights of our employees."
In fact, the paper did not disclose the situation to its readers until Thursday morning — after the Seven Days story ran. Mitchell, Pappas and general manager Catherine Nelson ignored repeated requests from Seven Days over the course of a week for more information about whether the paper knew of Blaisdell's record when it hired him.
The only person who spoke with Seven Days, state editor Rob Mitchell, who is John Mitchell's son, initially denied knowing about it.
Asked last Monday if he had any reason to believe Blaisdell might be on Vermont's sex offender registry, Rob Mitchell said, "I don't have any knowledge of that. If that was true, I think I would want to look into it."
Asked again if the paper was aware Blaisdell might have a criminal record and whether editors had weighed that when hiring him, Mitchell said, "No. Not that I know of."
Later that day, Mitchell emailed Seven Days, writing:
I don't have much more to add, sorry. After talking with my father and our General Manager, Catherine Nelson, I was reminded we don't and should not comment on our employees.
As a matter of course we follow best practices in hiring, and Eric has been a steady and solid reporter.
Seven Days followed up by email with the Mitchells, Nelson and Pappas, quoting Rob Mitchell's original response and asking for clarification about whether anyone at the paper was aware of Blaisdell's record. None responded to the emails, nor to several phone calls.
Though John Mitchell and Pappas both evidently spoke with Smallheer, neither they, Nelson or Rob Mitchell responded to another request for an interview Thursday morning from Seven Days.
Smallheer's story also shed further light on Blaisdell's experience with the criminal justice system and his attempts to get his life back on track:
Blaisdell, in a telephone interview, said Wednesday that he was a college student coping with low self-esteem and confusion over his career path when he started using the Yahoo! Instant Messenger in 2006 to go on chat rooms and talk to underage girls. He said he knew it was morally wrong, suspected it might be criminal, but did it anyway.
Blaisdell said his criminal conviction was “devastating,” and he lost lifelong friends. He said he had worked hard to overcome the stigma.
It also quotes Blaisdell's court-appointed therapist, Nancy Strapko of Plymouth, N.H., praising Blaisdell's recovery and questioning the fairness of sex offender registries, which include all manner of ex-convicts. Blaisdell never actually met up with those posing as minors.
“One of the problems is the registry lumps every crime together. In my group there are 60-year-old men who have sex with 9-year-old girls, which is very disturbing behavior. Eric does not fall into that category. But with the Internet, it’s a whole new form,” [Strapko] said.
Blaisdell also declined several requests for comment from Seven Days in the past week, but he told Smallheer Wednesday that he never intended to meet up with those with whom he was conversing online:??
???“It was never my intention of following through. There was a lot of talk, a lot of talk, but I would come up with some excuse, and say, ‘Oh, my car broke down,’ or ‘My grandmother died.’”???
As Seven Days reported Wednesday, Blaisdell has written at least 17 stories during his five months at the paper about sex crimes, many of which involved minors. But he and Pappas both told Smallheer they do not believe his history in any way compromised his ability to cover the cops and courts beat.
The story does not indicate whether Blaisdell will remain on the beat.