Feds Stir Double Trouble Using Subpoena Power

By Shields, Todd | Editor & Publisher, September 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Feds Stir Double Trouble Using Subpoena Power


Shields, Todd, Editor & Publisher


The Associated Press is 'outraged' by Justice Department summoning of its reporter's telephone records

The Associated Press last week mounted an aggressive campaign against the U.S. Justice Department in reaction to one of the most invasive uses of federal subpoena power against journalists in decades.

"We are outraged," said AP President and CEO Louis D. Boccardi after the Justice Department obtained home telephone records of an AP reporter covering an investigation of Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J. Boccardi said the actions "fly in the face of long-standing policy that recognizes what a serious step it is to go after a reporter's phone records."

AP asked for an explanation, but received none, Executive Editor Jonathan P. Wolman told E&P. Justice Department officials, while not responding in detail, said there was no change in policy. Guidelines established in 1973 call for approval by the attorney general before a subpoena can be issued to a journalist.

The groundwork for the controversy was laid May 4, when the wire service moved a story by investigative reporter John Solomon about the federal probe of Torricelli's campaign finances.

Returning from vacation to his northern Virginia home on Aug. 26, Solomon found a mailed letter from the U.S. attorney investigating Torricelli. It said federal authorities using a subpoena on May 14 had obtained records of his home phone calls from May 2 to May 7.

Critics said the incident showed the Bush administration may be indifferent to traditional protections that keep journalists independent from government investigators -- and keep sources talking to journalists without fear of discovery. Wolman said the subpoena "raises questions about the standards the Justice Department is using. The alarm bells go off. It's also possible somebody made a mistake, and they ought to own up to it."

An earlier incident only adds to critics' concern. On July 20, federal authorities in Houston jailed would-be true-crime writer Vanessa Leggett for her refusal to comply with a sweeping subpoena seeking her research into a society slaying. Officials decided Leggett, who hopes to sell a book about the killing, is not covered by the policy concerning subpoenas of journalists. She could remain jailed for as long as 18 months. Ray Marcano, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, accused the Justice Department of "tremendous disregard for its own policies and the First Amendment [by] threatening and intimidating journalists. …

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