A sheriff’s deputy in North Carolina posed as a Newsweek reporter to coax an anonymous source out of a local newspaper journalist. And it worked.
In a case of scandal climbing atop scandal, the deputy got The (Jacksonville) Daily News reporter Lindell Kay to hand over the phone number of a source in a high-profile homicide case, leading to criminal charges against an intern in the local district attorney’s office.
The source reportedly gave Kay permission to give out his information because he wanted to talk with Newsweek.
Now intern Robert Sharpe is charged with embezzlement and larceny, accused of offering to sell the undercover deputy confidential records from a 6,000-page file he’d been told to photocopy in the case of Cpl. Cesar Laurean. Laurean was tracked down to Mexico earlier this year and is charged with killing a pregnant Marine whose burned remains were found in North Carolina.
Sharpe has now identified himself to the media as a confidential source for The Daily News.
The Onslow County Sheriff’s Department’s tactic stunned the newspaper and Newsweek.
"It’s unacceptable and inappropriate for anyone to pretend to be a reporter," Newsweek attorney Steve Fuzesi said, "but even more inappropriate for a law enforcement person to use that as a tool — if the allegations here are true." Fuzesi said Newsweek is looking into the reports.
"North Carolina has the reporter’s shield law," Daily News executive editor Elliot Potter said. "I feel like our sheriff’s department, instead of upholding the law, by targeting us in an undercover operation, circumvented the law" at least in spirit.
According to Potter, Kay got the phone call around Aug. 8 and noted that caller ID said it came from Maryland. "We’re used to dealing with a lot of reporters from national media and elsewhere on this story," Potter said, " so it really wasn’t anything unusual." After checking with the source, Kay relayed the contact information to the caller, and then didn’t give it much thought.
Until late last week. That’s when the district attorney’s office called a press conference in the case, and The Daily News learned an arrest in the alleged leaks was imminent. The newspaper, which Potter said is still dealing with the possibility it will be subpoenaed for blog information or other data in the Laurean case, was now itself the focus of media scrutiny.
Sharpe had harsh words for The Daily News in a statement to WNCT, the local CBS affiliate: "I’m supposed to be a confidential source. They screwed me over and offered no help or assistance afterwards. I put my trust in this organization." Potter said Sharpe has since called him to apologize for those remarks.
The editor said he understands why Sharpe is upset over the sheriff’s deceptive tactics. Potter reported he called the sheriff’s office himself to "express my disappointment" but did not get much of a response.
"Our reporter — of course, this is our police reporter who regularly deals with the sheriff’s department, and I tell you he feels really abused and disrespected," Potter said. "It is somewhat to me ironic that they would go to these lengths to get information from us when, if their investigation has any merit, the source of their real problem was right working in their domain."