Case Settled, Cert Denied
Murray, Casey, News Media and the Law
When five news organizations agreed to pay former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee $750,000 as part of a larger settlement of his Privacy Act lawsuit against the government, the payout was unprecedented.
While the June settlement cemented that the U.S. Supreme Court will not hear a reporter's privilege case during its next term, leaving that area of the law unsettled, it was not a complete loss for the news media.
"I think this case certainly shows that the news media should he doing everything in its power to secure the passage of a federal shield law so that the confusion that is now rampant in this area of law can be clarified so everybody knows what the rules are," said Lee Levine of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz in Washington, D.C., who represented reporters Josef Hebert of The Associated Press and Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times in the Lee case.
In 2000, Lee sued the U.S. Departments of Energy and Justice and the FBI, claiming they violated his rights under the Privacy Act by publicly releasing information about him. At the time, federal agents were investigating Lee for suspected espionage regarding nuclear secrets. Prosecutors eventually cleared Lee of all charges except mishandling classified information.
In order to discover who leaked his personal information, Lee subpoenaed six reporters who covered the investigation: Pierre Thomas, formerly of CNN and now with ABC News; James Risen and Jeff Gerth of The New York Times; Hebert of The Associated Press; Drogin of the Los Angeles Times; and Walter Pincus of the Post. The reporters refused to comply with the subpoenas and in August 2004, U.S. District Judge Thomas P.Jackson found all the reporters but Pincus - whose case was proceeding more slowly on the same track - in contempt and fined them $500 per day until they complied. The fine was suspended pending appeals.
The reporters appealed and in June 2005, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., agreed with the contempt finding while dismissing the case against Gerth. After the full court refused to hear the case in November, and Pincus was subsequently given the same penalty.
Levine said the federal appellate court ruling, while upholding the contempt rulings, was not a complete loss. …