Moral of Legal Action: Save Your Notes; Reporter Who Protected Confidential Source Is off the Hook - Just Barely

Article excerpt

A LOS ANGELES Times reporter who protected a confidential source despite the possibility of a contempt citation and jail is off the hook -- but just barely.

The informant, an Internal Revenue Service agent, recently agreed to let reporter Myron Levin disclose his name after a number of refusals.

But when the agent finally testified in the civil case, he waffled about whether he was Levin's source, the reporter said. The agent conceded that he might have talked to Levin but said he could not remember the conversation.

But that was good enough for U.S. District Judge Harry Hupp, who regarded his statement as an admission.

The case began in March 1990, with Levin's story about how a San Diego lawyer, under investigation for fraud, had avoided an IRS attempt to seize his more valuable assets as satisfaction for about $2.8 million that he owed in back taxes.

After getting a "no comment" from an official IRS spokesman, Levin got a quote from an anonymous source, who confirmed what the reporter believed: The government had overlooked $500,000 that the lawyer received from the sale of his home and $2 million from a litigation settlement with a former client.

"I was right on deadline when I talked to him [the agent]," Levin said.

The IRS swallowed its chagrin about the disclosure, but the lawyer's ex-wife, Erma Miller, sued the agency for $181 million for illegally disclosing taxpayer information.

She claimed ownership of part of the concealed assets.

However, Miller had to discover who had confirmed the information to Levin to sustain her suit. …

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