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NPR In-House Veteran Shanahan to Succeed Legal Chief Who Quit

Nov. 25, 2020, 9:24 PM

National Public Radio Inc. has named longtime in-house lawyer Michelle Shanahan interim general counsel following the resignation of its legal chief last month.

Shanahan, a 23-year veteran of the nonprofit news network’s in-house legal group, will hold the job while the organization conducts a national search for his permanent successor, NPR spokeswoman Isabel Lara said. Shanahan has been NPR’s senior associate general counsel and assistant secretary.

She assumes the top legal leadership post as NPR wrestles with the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. In April, NPR cut the pay and benefits of staffers as its budget deficit ballooned by up to $53 million over the next two years. NPR said some workers would be offered furloughs.

Shanahan didn’t respond to a request for comment about her new role. Tax records show she was paid roughly $252,640 by NPR in 2018-19.

Jonathan Hart, who had served as NPR’s chief legal officer and general counsel since mid-2014, resigned Oct. 31, according to the Washington-based media group.

Hart didn’t respond to a request for comment about his future plans, which Lara said NPR was not privy to when he left. She noted the nonprofit hasn’t enlisted an executive search firm to fill Hart’s former position, which has been posted publicly on NPR’s website. NPR is also hiring an assistant general counsel.

NPR hired Hart to replace former legal chief Terri Minatra on July 1, 2014. He joined the nonprofit, which relies upon public and private funding to operate a network of more than 1,000 radio stations across the U.S., after spending six months as a technology transactions partner at Cooley in Washington.

Cooley absorbed the bulk of Dow Lohnes, where Hart had spent nearly three decades, in January 2014. At Dow Lohnes, Hart was an outside general counsel to clients like the now-defunct New Century Network, Cox Interactive Media, and the Online News Association. The latter praised Hart at the time he joined NPR for helping found and organize the Washington-based nonprofit for digital journalists.

NPR paid $446,160 in total compensation to Hart during fiscal 2018-19, according to the organization’s most recent federal tax filing, made last month. Hart received roughly $470,000 in 2017-18; $465,290 in 2016-17; $443,290 in 2015-16; and $197,880 when he started at NPR in 2014-15, according to annual tax filings.

Changing Times

Hart’s tenure at NPR began as the nonprofit was grappling with a changing media environment and periodic controversies, including allegations of ideological bias.

In 2010, NPR retained Weil, Gotshal & Manges to investigate the circumstances that resulted in the ouster of former commentator Juan Williams, who was fired after making controversial on-air remarks about Muslims on Fox News.

NPR’s tax filing for 2011-12 shows it paid $750,507 to Weil for that work.

In late 2017, former NPR senior news executive Michael Oreskes resigned after being accused of sexual harassment. NPR hired Morgan, Lewis & Bockius to conduct an internal investigation that ultimately found the nonprofit’s management had failed to take disciplinary action against Oreskes for inappropriate workplace behavior.

Other in-house lawyers on staff at NPR include Adam Zissman, a former general counsel for the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins who joined the nonprofit in 2015 and currently serves as an associate general counsel and director of compliance and ethics.

Bloomberg Law data shows that Davis Wright Tremaine and Ballard Spahr—two law firms known for their expertise in First Amendment litigation—have within the past five years handled nearly 52% of NPR’s federal litigation work. Ballard Spahr is currently representing NPR in its bid to force the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to turn over data on flawed Covid-19 testing kits.

Cooley, Hart’s former firm, has had a role on 6.5% of NPR’s federal caseload during that time frame, according to Bloomberg Law.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com