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Coroner to stand trial for revealing password to reporters

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Confidentiality/Privilege   ·   March 30, 2007

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Confidentiality/Privilege   ·   March 30, 2007

Coroner to stand trial for revealing password to reporters

  • Reporters will testify in the trial of a Pennsylvania coroner who allegedly gave them access to the restricted areas of the county’s emergency 911 Web site.

March 30, 2007  ·   The elected coroner of Lancaster County, Pa., will stand trial on criminal charges after journalists testified that he gave them a password to the county’s official 911 computer system.

Reporter Carrie Cassidy, formerly of the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, testified at a hearing on Monday that coroner G. Gary Kirchner revealed the password so that reporters could go directly to the Web site to get information instead of calling Kirchner.

According to media reports, Kirchner’s attorney had argued at the pretrial hearing that the case should not go forward because Cassidy’s previous grand jury testimony was not credible.

Although parts of the Web site are open to the public, confidential parts of the site are protected by user names and passwords given to authorized personnel, according to a statement from the Pennsylvania attorney general. These restricted areas of the Web site display warnings that say “unauthorized access may result in criminal prosecution.”

Kirchner’s alleged actions came to light when the Journal reported on a woman’s death in August 2005 and mentioned the 911 Web site as a source. Kirchner’s user name and password were used 57 times by Journal computers, according to the grand jury report.

The password was deactivated shortly after the unauthorized access was discovered, and the grand jury report alleges that reporters contacted Kirchner by e-mail in order to regain access to the site.

Five reporters, including Cassidy, initially refused to testify before the grand jury on the basis of their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. However, they were subsequently granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony, according to the grand jury report.

Kirchner was charged in February with unlawful use of a computer and conspiracy to commit unlawful use of a computer. Both offenses are third-degree felonies in Pennsylvania and are punishable by up to seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine, according to the attorney general’s statement.

The grand jury report alleges that Kirchner “took it upon himself to favor certain members of the media by determining who would have access to the site and who would not.”

Shortly after he was charged, Kirchner blasted the reporters’ decision to testify against him before the grand jury. The newspaper published an editorial in February stating that there was “no agreement of confidentiality with Kirchner in this matter.”

According to the Journal’s attorney, William DeStefano, the newspaper and the reporters are not charged with any crimes in connection with this case.

In February 2006, the attorney general’s office seized four newsroom computers as part of the investigation. But the newspaper challenged a subpoena issued in July for two more hard drives, eventually leading the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to rule in October that the attorney general’s office did not justify the need to seize the hard drives.

According to DeStefano, the court eventually appointed a neutral examiner to review the files on the hard drive. The examiner — a professor from Penn State University — examined the hard drive and then issued a report to supervising judge of the grand jury. The report was then disclosed to the attorney general.

“The idea was not to have law enforcement running wild,” DeStefano said. “The neutral examiner was instructed only to review the Internet log on one hard drive that would disclose the addressee of e-mails, since lots of other information would have likely been protected by privilege.”

(Media Counsel: William DeStefano, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Philadelphia)ES

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