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Offender Bender 

Fair Game

The reporter charged with covering cops and courts for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus knows a thing or two about both.

That’s because the reporter, Eric Blaisdell, is a registered sex offender who served more than eight months in jail and remains on probation for three counts of attempting to solicit a minor.

And despite the fact that Blaisdell is listed on both Vermont’s and New Hampshire’s sex offender registries, it’s unclear whether the Times Argus was aware of his criminal past until Seven Days brought it to the paper’s attention last week.

“I don’t have any knowledge of that,” the paper’s state editor, Rob Mitchell, said last Monday when asked if he knew about Blaisdell’s record. “If that was true, I think I would want to look into it.”

After conferring with his father, John Mitchell, who owns and publishes the Times Argus and the Rutland Herald, the younger Mitchell said in an email statement that the papers “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,” Mitchell wrote.

The two Mitchells, general manager Catherine Nelson and Times Argus editor Steven Pappas did not respond to several requests for more information over the course of a week. Reached by phone Monday, Blaisdell also declined to comment.

A native of North Haverhill, N.H., Blaisdell was one of a dozen men arrested in a sting conducted by the Southern Hillsborough County Cybersafe Task Force in February 2007, the Associated Press reported at the time.

According to court records, he was indicted for using Yahoo! Instant Messenger “to attempt to seduce, solicit, lure or entice ‘kelliegirl_1992,’ a person he believed to be a child under the age of 16,” to engage in sexual activity. That person turned out to be a law enforcement official.

Blaisdell was also charged for a separate series of exchanges that took place the previous month with an adult posing as a 13-year-old girl. In that case, court records indicate, the adult using the online identity “shelly_belly_93” was a Missouri woman named Laura Abeckle, who was volunteering with Perverted-Justice.com, a controversial online vigilante group dedicated to tracking down and turning in sex offenders.

Blaisdell allegedly discussed meeting up with Abeckle after she identified herself in a chat room as a 13-year-old from Walpole, N.H. She subsequently contacted and worked with the Walpole and Haverhill police departments, providing chat logs and emails from seven separate online encounters in January 2007.

Blaisdell was 21 years old at the time.

Later that year, Blaisdell pled guilty to three felony charges of using the internet to solicit sex from minors. According to New Hampshire Department of Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Lyons, Blaisdell served eight and a half months of a 12-month jail sentence. He remains on probation through November 2013, and until then is barred from having unsupervised contact with minors.

Under the original terms of his probation, Blaisdell was also prohibited from using computers or the internet. That restriction was temporarily lifted in August 2011 so that he could attend Lyndon State College and again this July to accommodate his new job at the Times Argus, according to court records.

He was also granted permission to access high school campuses “for journalistic business,” though he must notify an athletic coach prior to any interviews with students, during which another adult must be present.

Blaisdell’s first byline appeared in the Times Argus on June 12.

His assignment? To cover the release of a homeless sex offender who served six months in jail for lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. In his next two stories for the paper, Blaisdell covered high school graduations in East Montpelier and Northfield.

Is it appropriate for a newspaper to employ a reporter with a criminal record like Blaisdell’s?

“I don’t think that being a registered sex offender automatically disqualifies him from being a reporter,” says Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member specializing in media ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and news site.

However, McBride says, a news organization should be aware of a reporter’s criminal record so that it can avoid conflicts of interest and protect itself against the possibility that the reporter reoffends.

“It’s the kind of information that, as an employer that is constantly holding other powerful organizations accountable, I would want to know ahead of time, so that I could make sure I was holding my own organization accountable,” she says.

McBride says she would likely place restrictions on what such a reporter could cover — no sex offenders or children, for example — and would monitor his computer use.

“I certainly wouldn’t want him covering sexual predators and sex crimes,” she says.

But in his time at the Times Argus, Blaisdell has done just that. A review of his work during his five months on the job indicates he’s written at least 17 stories about sex offenses — many of which involved minors.

In addition to the cops-and-courts beat, Blaisdell has also covered schools in Montpelier, Barre and elsewhere in the paper’s circulation area. Several days after Seven Days spoke with Rob Mitchell about Blaisdell’s past, the paper ran a front-page story penned by Blaisdell about a “safe space” for teens at Barre’s Aldrich Public Library. No minors were quoted in the piece.

It’s unclear whether anyone at the Times Argus was aware of Blaisdell’s history; Seven Days came upon the information accidentally, by way of a simple Google search.

What is clear is that the newspaper appears entirely unwilling to answer questions about what it knew and when. That’s surprising, given the paper’s longstanding tradition of holding other organizations to account.

“A newspaper is very much a public institution that the community depends upon,” McBride says. “And so, like the police department or the most powerful businesses in town or like the education system, we expect newspaper employees to hold others accountable, and we therefore expect to hold them accountable as well.”

No one is arguing that Blaisdell shouldn’t be allowed to seek gainful employment in the field he chooses. He served his time and has kept a clean record since. When he sought permission from the court to use computers while enrolled at Lyndon State, Blaisdell’s mental health counselor wrote in a supporting letter, “He takes full responsibility for his offense. Eric is a bright young man who is looking to move forward from his mistakes.”

But while Blaisdell has every right to work in journalism, his employers have a right to know his criminal history. More importantly, his readers have a right to know of any real or perceived conflicts of interest he may have.

“Journalists are people; people are not objective,” reads the Times Argus and Rutland Herald’s own statement of journalistic principles. “They bring their own life experience, their own opinions, their own bias to their jobs. But journalism is a profession, with professional standards, and one of these standards is the use of an objective process.”

Whether Blaisdell can objectively and impartially cover sex offenders is a question only he and his editors can answer, but readers must be assured that such conversations are taking place in the newsroom. By declining to answer reasonable questions posed by another newspaper about whether they are, the Times Argus is doing exactly what it deplores in those it covers: assuming the defensive crouch and failing to be forthcoming.

You can be sure that if this scenario played out in any other institution whose mission is to serve the public, the Times Argus would be howling for transparency and accountability.

Face Plant?

After weeks of debate and behind-the-scenes negotiation, the Burlington City Council finally passed a resolution Monday night intended to keep the decrepit Moran Plant city owned.

Oddly, though, the resolution’s strongest supporters — the council’s three Progressives — voted against it, while the resolution’s detractors all voted for it. That’s because one detractor, Councilor Vince Dober (R-Ward 7), managed to amend it sufficiently to remove its teeth.

As originally proposed by the Progs, the resolution “encouraged” Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger to adopt several principles when determining future development plans for the plant. Among them: “Retain full or majority ownership by the City of the Moran Plant building” and seek to lease it to a developer rather than sell it.

 That didn’t sit well with Weinberger, who argued that it would tie his hands in negotiations. Nor did it win favor with the mayor’s fellow Democrats, who said they saw no need to debate the concept of public ownership absent a proposal to sell anything.

 “This discussion really is fabricated out of whole cloth,” Councilor Norm Blais (D-Ward 6) said, calling it a “hypothetical, theoretical debate about ownership.”

Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) disagreed, saying, “These issues are self-evident, but I do think it’s important to state the necessary … I think it’s really important to have this in writing.”

Attempting to forge compromise, Councilor Rachel Siegel (P-Ward 3) proposed holding a public referendum in the event that a developer proposes to buy the plant — but her amendment was shot down, drawing support only from Bushor.

Dober’s amendment was far more popular. He proposed adding a clause to the resolution allowing the city to simply “secure robust, binding, permanent protections of the public interest” if a proposal to sell was floated. With tri-partisan, but not quadri-partisan support (the Progs opposed it), Dober’s amendment passed, as did the underlying resolution.

 Calling it “too diluted,” the measure’s original author, Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), closed the debate saying, “I will not be supporting my own resolution, as much as it pains me to do so.”

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Bio:
Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."

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