Sources disclosed by reporter, spouse loses job

Feature
Page Number: 
21

From the Fall 1999 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.


In two separate cases in different states, two attorneys who were journalists’ sources and had received promises of confidentiality were sentenced to jail time or probation and lost their jobs as a result of the disclosure of their identities as sources.

A South Carolina attorney who served as president of the state’s trial lawyers association was sentenced to four months in jail for lying to a grand jury, and resigned his law practice. A former corporate attorney in Ohio was sentenced to two years of unmonitored probation and 40 hours of community service for his involvement in illegally accessing corporate employees’ voice mail.

SOUTH CAROLINA LAWYER SENTENCED FOR LYING TO GRAND JURY

Lawyer Jack Duncan was sentenced to four months in jail for lying to a grand jury. Duncan was a confidential news source for Columbia, S.C., reporter Heather Hoopes in her story covering the Lexington County Sheriff’s De¬part¬ment’s secret recording of conversations between lawyers and their clients. Hoopes, who works for WIS-TV, refused to reveal Duncan as her source, and ultimately, it was Hoopes’ husband who was forced to reveal to a grand jury Duncan’s identity.

In mid-May, federal drug enforcement agent James Matthews identified his wife’s confidential news source to a federal grand jury in Columbia, S.C., according to the Associated Press.

Hoopes obtained a videotape of a private conversation between criminal suspect B.J. Quattlebaum and his attorney. Quattlebaum was indicted in March 1996 for murder, assault and battery, and armed robbery. While Quattlebaum was imprisoned at the Lexington County Detention Center, a conversation he had with his former attorney was surreptitiously recorded, allegedly by a sheriff’s sergeant.

The videotape was later given to Hoopes, and the circuit court in Lexington prohibited all media from reporting on or airing the videotape.

In August 1998, the South Carolina Supreme Court in Columbia affirmed the prior restraint. In early April, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the state Supreme Court’s ruling. (See NM&L, Fall 1998).

Federal investigators trying to find out how Hoopes got the videotape sought Matthews’ testimony.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. (4th Cir.) in April refused to dismiss federal District Court Judge Joe Anderson’s order demanding Matthews’ testimony. Matthews subsequently revealed to a federal grand jury Duncan’s identity as Hoopes’ confidential source.

Duncan was president of the state’s trial lawyer’s association and had to resign his law practice, according to Electronic Media Daily.

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UTAH LAWYER SUES ENQUIRER OVER DISCLOSURE AS SOURCE IN CHIQUITA CONTROVERSY

In mid-August, former Chiquita Brands International lawyer George Ventura filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) against Gannett and the Cincinnati Enquirer for breach of contract, promissory estoppel and negligent hiring claims. Ventura based his claims on the alleged breach of confidentiality promised him by former Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Michael Gallagher.

A Cincinnati trial court previously held in mid-April that Ventura did not enjoy protection under the Ohio shield law as Gallagher’s confidential source. The court held that only reporters can assert the shield law to protect sources. Furthermore, it found the shield law was inapplicable to Gallagher because he had already disclosed that Ventura was his confidential source.

Gallagher used information from Ventura, combined with the voice mail messages of at least five Chiquita employees as part of a May 1998 special section in the Enquirer that was critical of Chiquita’s business practices. The following month, the Enquirer renounced the Chiquita stories, fired Gallagher and paid Chiquita more than $10 million to settle any claims related to the series.

Ventura argued that Gallagher should not have been allowed to identify him as the source for the unauthorized access to Chiquita voice mail because he was a confidential source whose identity should receive protection under the state shield law. The court disagreed, ruling that the Ohio shield law does not prevent a reporter from voluntarily naming his source.

Ventura, now a Utah attorney, was fired from the Salt Lake City law firm where he worked after he was named as Gallagher’s source. He pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges of attempted unauthorized access to computer systems, and was sentenced to two years of unmonitored probation and 40 hours of community service. (See NM&L, Summer 1999)