Editor’s note: This story by Mark Davis was first published in the Valley News.
WEST LEBANON — The Times Argus reporter whose status as a registered sex offender was revealed last week formerly worked as a sports intern for the Valley News, which says it was unaware of his criminal past.
Eric Blaisdell, a North Haverhill native, worked for the Valley News sports department as an academic intern from Lyndon State College in the summer of 2011 and occasionally in 2012, covering high school and community sports events in Vermont and New Hampshire. Blaisdell wrote more than two dozen stories for the paper, some of which included interviews with high school students.
During that time, Blaisdell was on probation and barred from having contact with minors without permission from his probation officers, according to Grafton Superior Court records. The court records make no reference to Blaisdell seeking or receiving such permission from his probation officers during his tenure at the Valley News.
However, New Hampshire Department of Corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons said that such decisions are often made by probation officers without a formal legal filing. Lyons said that Blaisdell had not run afoul of any regulations or laws while on probation.
Blaisdell said he had no comment, but said via email that his probation officer and therapist approved his internship at the Valley News and the work he was doing for the paper. Lyons said that Blaisdell had notified probation that he was going to accept an internship, but the spokesman declined to provide further information, saying it was not in the court file and therefore not publicly available.
Blaisdell, 27, did not disclose his record or probationary status to the Valley News, Editor Jeff Good said. Nor did Lyndon State College, which arranged the internship.
“In the newsroom, we do not routinely check” whether a job candidate has a criminal background, Good said. Instead, he said, hiring editors conduct in-depth interviews with applicants, check their references and trust that they will disclose any problems that might affect their work representing the Valley News in the community.
“There is no more important quality in a reporter than honesty. I send people into the streets to get the truth about situations, and I need to have 100 percent confidence that they’re going to come back and tell me and the readers” the facts, Good said.
“In this case, I wish Eric had told us. But he didn’t,” Good said. “I wish I had known about his criminal past. I particularly wish I would have known that a condition of his probation was that he not have unsupervised contact with minors.”
Blaisdell was not the subject of any complaints during his time at the Valley News, Good said, and “did good work.”
Lyndon State College Director of Career Services Linda Wacholder said last week that her office was unaware of Blaisdell’s record and court-imposed restrictions when it oversaw his internship. Other officials at the college were aware, however, and worked to help Blaisdell establish himself as a student there.
“When Lyndon State accepted Eric Blaisdell as a student it was with full knowledge of his past criminal conviction — which Eric did not seek to hide. The college did due diligence and worked with appropriate authorities prior to his being accepted and during his tenure as a student at Lyndon. Eric was, by all accounts, a model student and a campus leader. The college appreciates and respects that Mr. Blaisdell has admitted his wrongdoings and continues to pay his debt to society,” Lyndon State spokesman Keith Chamberlin said in an email.
Chamberlin declined to say why the college had not informed the Valley News about Blaisdell’s conviction and probation restrictions. He said only, “In the instance of Mr. Blaisdell, we followed existing protocol. However, this instance has caused us to review our protocol to ensure it is sufficient, and as such, we will adjust this protocol accordingly as needed.”
Blaisdell graduated from Lyndon State earlier this year. His last Valley News article appeared in June 2012, when he landed a job covering police and courts for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. He did inform the Times Argus of his record and restrictions.
Times Argus Editor Steven Pappas said Friday that the paper is standing by its decision to hire Blaisdell and employ him as a courts reporter.
“We stand by Eric,” Pappas said. “He is no threat to the community.”
Blaisdell was convicted in 2008 of soliciting sex in an Internet chat room from a purported 13-year-old girl who turned out to be an volunteer working undercover for an advocacy group, Perverted-Justice.com. No physical contact was alleged. Blaisdell was 21 years old at the time of the 2007 offense.
Blaisdell was not required by either New Hampshire or Vermont law to disclose his record, according to legal experts in both states. He is, however, a registered sex offender, and information about his conviction is publicly accessible on sex offender registries in both states.
The Valley News has an employment application that asks, “have you ever been convicted of a felony or other crime within the past ten years which has not been annulled?” However, the newsroom has not required employees to complete the form, instead asking them to submit resumes and undergo personal interviews. The newspaper’s business departments have asked some applicants to fill out the forms, but not all.
Blaisdell’s case shows the need for consistency, said Valley News Publisher Mark Travis. From this point on, he said, all departments — including the newsroom — will require applicants to fill out the form and answer the question about criminal convictions.
Blaisdell wrote almost all of his stories for the sports department. However, he contributed two interviews, one with a social studies teacher and one with a female high school sophomore, to an April 29, 2012, article that reported on Lebanon High School students’ reaction to the murder of teacher Natalie Perriello.
Blaisdell had been sentenced in February 2008 to one year in the Grafton County jail on a charge of prohibited computer uses in connection with the Internet offense, and was placed on probation for four years after his release.
Among the conditions of probation that a judge imposed, Blaisdell was to have no contact with minors, unless approved by probation officers, and was forbidden from having a computer or Internet access.
In March 2012, Blaisdell sought and received permission from a judge to use computers for “college, business or journalistic reasons.” And in July 2012, Blaisdell, citing his recent hiring at the Times Argus, successfully asked for his conditions to be modified to allow him to access high school campuses “for journalistic business.”
Blaisdell was required by the judge to notify a coach prior to any interview, and could not interview anyone without an adult present, according to court documents. He was also allowed to use a cell phone to email for professional reasons.
The Valley News learned of Blaisdell’s history last week when Seven Days, the alternative weekly that broke the story, and the Rutland Herald published articles.
Good said the Valley News would consider hiring applicants with criminal histories and may even have used Blaisdell as an intern had the paper known of his record. However, the paper would have made sure he was following his court-ordered conditions.
“It would not have been an automatic disqualifier,” Good said. “I believe when somebody makes a mistake and pays the price for it through the criminal justice system, they deserve a second chance. I would have been open to bringing him aboard as an intern, but had I known that a condition of probation was that he not be around minors, I wouldn’t have given him the job covering high school sports.”
Mark Davis can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3304.