Report to Readers: A riveting story becomes a legal headache
One thing Concord Monitor reporters learn quickly: If you’re covering a story that involves Tony Soltani, it’s always going to be interesting. Recently, however, what started out as an especially interesting tale turned into a stressful legal fight for the newspaper.
Soltani, a former state lawmaker from Epsom, was involved in a bizarre traffic incident last spring. Readers may recall that he was arrested on Route 28 in April after the police said he tried to force a driver off the road and interfere with an officer chasing a fleeing car. An indictment issued in May alleged that he was driving up to 110 mph.
Soltani said he was actually trying to help the cop pursue a dangerous driver. He said friends in law enforcement told him he deserved a community service award for his effort – and he said he doubted his Dodge Neon could go that fast.
On April 12, the Monitor published a long story about the incident, including an interview with Soltani. And that’s where our legal tangle began.
Late last month prosecutors pursuing the case against Soltani issued a subpoena demanding that Monitor reporter Tricia Nadolny appear in court in February to testify about that article. We could see why they were interested in it. After all, the story had Soltani describing the chase in his own words. He acknowledged speeding down Route 28 to pass the fleeing car and attempting to execute a “rolling roadblock.” He said he had the car contained for “a good 30 to 45 seconds” but that the police officer involved didn’t help him execute the technique.
Still, this is not the sort of holiday-season mail journalists like to receive. Our job is to cover the news, not participate in it. Helping the state convict someone is not our role. Participating in such a proceeding undermines our ability to do our job. It has a chilling effect on the free flow of information to the public and on the independence of the press. Our basic position is that our written work stands for itself; no need to haul our reporters into court.
That’s precisely the argument our attorney made when he filed a motion with the court to quash the subpoena. But there was another wrinkle, too:
The subpoena was issued to Nadolny, but she hadn’t actually conducted the interview with Soltani. The April 12 story had two bylines on it: Nadolny’s and Matthew Spolar’s. They worked together on the story, but it was Spolar who conducted the interview.
Why did the state subpoena Nadolny? When the prosecutors made themselves a copy of the April 12 story from the Monitor website, the website somehow produced a version with Spolar’s name mysteriously cut off. (Imagine! A glitch with our website!)
We quickly informed the prosecutor that Spolar had conducted the interview – and also that he no longer worked for the Monitor and no longer lived in New Hampshire. On Jan. 6 Nadolny signed an affidavit, swearing that it was Spolar, not she, who did that initial interview with Soltani.
Were we off the hook? It took a while to find out. For while Nadolny hadn’t done the April 12 interview, she had written nearly a dozen more stories on this strange case in the months since. Was the state interested in those too? For a long while, there was silence on the other end. Then, late on Thursday, we got word that the state had withdrawn Nadolny from its witness list, excusing her from the subpoena and negating our need to argue before a judge that she shouldn’t have to testify.
At this point, the Soltani trial is scheduled to start in early February. We’ll be there – in the audience, not on the witness stand.
(Felice Belman can be reached at 369-3370 or firstname.lastname@example.org)