Friday, November 19, 2004

Freedom of the Press?


Reporter Convicted; Shielded Source

November 19, 2004 By LYNNE TUOHY, Courant Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- A seasoned television investigative reporter was convicted of criminal contempt of court by a federal judge Thursday and is likely headed to prison for failing to reveal the source of an FBI Operation Plunder Dome surveillance tape he broadcast in February 2001.

Jim Taricani faces a maximum of six months when he is sentenced on Dec. 9. If he is incarcerated, he would become the 15th reporter in the United States in the past two decades to be jailed for failing to reveal sources or other information, and the first in New England during that time span, according to records kept by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The Newington (Connecticut) native and award-winning reporter for WJAR in Providence was resolute and composed after the 50-minute hearing before U.S. District Judge Ernest C. Torres. There was no bluster or bravado.He acknowledged being "anxious and nervous about my sentence."

He said the seat he had Thursday - in the same courtroom where he covered the Plunder Dome cases that unmasked the corrupt administration of former Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci - was "not a nice seat to sit in."

Taricani, 55, has won four Emmy Awards, the coveted Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting and a reprieve from death. He received a heart transplant in 1996.

His chief concern now is that imprisonment could prove life-threatening, even in the sophisticated setting that the federal Medical Center Devens in Ayer, Mass., has to offer. He is on a strict regimen of medications and his immune system is weakened. He must be vigilant about contracting viruses and other diseases from those around him.

Taricani has no regrets.

"I made a promise to my source, which I intend to keep," Taricani said. "Although I am willing to go to jail, I think it is wrong that journalists should face this type of threat simply for doing their jobs."

Torres and the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston have a far different take on the situation, which involves an unusual and escalating set of circumstances.

From the day FBI agents raided city hall here in April 1999, the investigation they dubbed Operation Plunder Dome has been hot news. Investigative reporters such as Taricani and Fox Providence WPRI's Jack White - who go back 25 years together - were working phones and sources.

A grand jury in June 1999 indicted Cianci's top aide and chief fund-raiser, Frank E. Corrente.

Fourteen months later, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux issued a protective order barring the prosecution and defense in the case from sharing any of the FBI surveillance tapes they had in their possession. The investigation was ongoing and trials of those already indicted were imminent.

Despite the order, someone slipped a tape to Taricani. It shows Corrente in his city hall office accepting a bribe from a man seeking to lease property to the city. Nothing new was revealed by the tape; the transaction was outlined in Corrente's indictment 10 months earlier and included in transcribed excerpts of the encounter.

What the tape did was put a human face on a city for sale. WJAR Channel 10 aired the tape Feb. 1, 2001.

It isn't Lagueux's order that Taricani was convicted of violating, though Torres said Thursday he is very much interested in hearing from Taricani on Dec. 9 whether he was aware of the order.

Taricani is under no obligation to satisfy Torres' curiosity or otherwise address the court that day.

Two months after the broadcast of the FBI surveillance tape, Cianci was indicted. The next month, in May 2001, Torres appointed a special prosecutor, respected local lawyer Marc DeSisto, to investigate who leaked the tape. Despite 14 interviews and "several" sworn depositions, DeSisto came up empty and Taricani wouldn't talk. On Oct. 2, 2003, Torres ordered Taricani to tell DeSisto who gave him the tape. Taricani still would not cave, and it is that October 2003 order he has been convicted of violating.

Torres first found Taricani in civil contempt of court in March 2004 and ordered him to pay $1,000 a day. WJAR and its parent company, NBC Universal, stepped in to pay the tab, which was waived while the station and Taricani appealed to the 1st Circuit. The federal appellate court upheld the contempt citation, saying, "There is no doubt that the request to Taricani was for information highly relevant to a good faith criminal investigation and ... that reasonable efforts were made to obtain the information elsewhere."

In refusing to answer DeSisto's questions, Taricani repeatedly stated that he was relying on the free press provisions of the First Amendment and the common law privilege granted reporters to be free of government intrusion in news gathering.

Torres Thursday attempted to dispel any notion, as argued by Taricani's lawyers, that he was being punished for broadcasting the tape."That may play well in the media or to those who have difficulty keeping their eye on the ball," Torres said at the outset of the hearing.

"He faces prosecution for violation of a court order. The fact he aired the tape had absolutely nothing to do with the criminal contempt order."

Taricani's longtime competitor, White, was in court Thursday.

"Jim's doing exactly what he has to do," White said.

"He made a commitment and he has to keep the commitment. He can't give the person up."

White said that what's at stake in the case is far more than the identity of a single source.

Rather, it is the willingness potential sources have to trust a reporter with information they would never convey "on the record."

"The protection of confidential sources is really important to those of us who deal with confidential sources over a long period of time," White said.

WPRO Radio talk show host Dan Yorke was more skeptical, noting that the backdrop to this monumental First Amendment showdown is the broadcast of a surveillance tape that offered no new information and was the subject of a protective order.

"This journalistic rallying around him is a little like the police wall of silence that occurs," Yorke said.

"There's been a little loss of perspective here. ... What are the chances you wake up protecting a source that is already under a previous protection order issued by a judge? Slim to none."

"He didn't break a story," Yorke said.

"I respect Jim. He's a terrific journalist. But the spin that this will erode the confidence of sources down the line is specious. ... This was a ratings scoop."

Taricani after court adamantly defended the tape's news value."

The tape was good TV," he acknowledged.

"It also was a vivid example of a very disturbing scene in city hall, where Mayor Cianci's No. 2 man was taking a $1,000 cash bribe in his office. Granted the information about that had been in the newspaper and on the radio for 10 months, but I still believe that showing people in video form - actually showing them what public corruption looks like - was something the public should know.

"Stephanie S. Abrutyn, counsel to the Tribune Company, owners of the Hartford Courant and numerous media outlets, worked with the team of lawyers who submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the 1st Circuit on behalf of the largest media organizations in the country. In that brief, the media "respectfully submit that the district court overvalued the government's interests here and woefully undervalued the First Amendment principles at stake."

Abrutyn said Thursday that the ability to protect confidential sources is crucial to the newsgathering process.

"Some of our most significant examples of government wrongdoing in this country were uncovered when people gave or told things to reporters, things they weren't supposed to, Watergate being a prime example," Abrutyn said.

"It's about a reporter's ability to gather information from people who have access to important things the public should know - especially about government and elected officials - without fear of being thrown in jail, sometimes by those very same officials."

The above was from the Hartford Courant

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

why is robert novak not in jail?

Friday, December 03, 2004 7:10:00 AM  

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