By Fitzgerald, Mark
Editor & Publisher , Vol. 124, No. 51
Politics - Pennsylvania style
In an apparently unprecedented case, the publisher, two top editors, and star columnist of a Pennsylvania newspaper have been arrested for publishing the transcript of a taped, on-the-record news interview.
At 10 a.m. this Monday (Dec. 23), a preliminary hearing will be held on the charges of violating the Pennsylvania wiretap law that have been filed against publisher Dale A. Duncan, vice president and editor Allison Walzer, managing editor Cliff Schechtman, and columnist Steve Corbett of the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
They are charged with publishing and conspiring to publish an illegally taped conversation.
The unusual charges against the four journalist - each faces a maximum prison term of seven years and a $15,000 fine - come against the background of a sensational murder case and political wrangling between the newspaper and a lame-duck district attorney.
"I think the district attorney has decided he's going to teach us a lesson for some of the things we've done, such as aggressively going after the story of this murder," Times Leader publisher Duncan said in a telephone interview.
The charges also draw attention to laws still on the books in 10 states that prohibit the taping of conversations without the consent of all parties.
"All we are being charged with is publishing. We published an accurate description of an on-the-record conversation," Duncan said.
According to Luzerne County District Attorney Jerome L. Cohen, Times Leader columnist Steve Corbett in late July 1989 illegally taped a telephone conversation with Dr. Glen Wolsieffer, a dentist who was later convicted of murdering his wife.
At the time of the arraignment of the four Times Leader journalists, District Attorney Cohen said columnist Corbett was not charged with illegal taping only because the statute of limitations had run out.
The actions of the columnist, the newspaper and the district attorney are all of a piece with the continuing story of the 1986 murder of Dr. Wolsieffer's wife Elizabeth.
"You really can't understand this unless you understand what's happened over the last five years of coverage of this murder," publisher Duncan said.
The case has striking parallels to such celebrated murder cases as those against Dr. Sam Sheppard or the "Fatal Vision" case of U.S. Army Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.
As in both those cases, Elizabeth Wolsieffer was killed in her home, strangled at age 32. Also, as in both cases, quite a long time elapsed between the murder and the husband's arrest.
Just as the Sam Sheppard case led the Cleveland newspapers to question that delay, the Times Leader "has not been shy in speaking out" in the Wolsieffer, Duncan said.
"There was tremendous, tremendous reluctance to arrest the suspect in this case," Duncan said. "In fact, a previous district attorney lost his seat in large measure because of his reluctance to bring this case."
The Times Leader editorialized vigorously against the re-election of that district attorney, a Democrat.
Last July, right before the trial, the elected district attorney, Correale F. Stevens, was appointed a judge. Jerome L. Cohen, also a Republican, was appointed to fill the unexpired term.
When Cohen ran for election, the Times Leader opposed him, and Cohen lost in a landslide to Democrat Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., who takes office Jan. 6.
Times Leader publisher Duncan says party politics explains much of the paper's present unusual legal difficulty.
"I'm sure that's it," he said. "It's the same political party. [There are] people who feel the need to get back at us."
When columnist Steve Corbett phoned suspect Wolsieffer in July 1989 - as he had done many times before in reporting the case - he was pursuing an aspect of the mystery that resembled the alibi given by convicted murdered Dr. …