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FBI seizes documents from Georgia newspaper

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         GEORGIA         Confidentiality/Privilege    

FBI seizes documents from Georgia newspaper

  • The FBI searched the Augusta Focus newsroom and seized documents as part of an investigation of the paper’s owner.

Sep. 30, 2003 — Armed with a search warrant under seal by court order, the Federal Bureau of Investigation seized financial documents and computer files from a weekly newspaper in Georgia last month.

Former state Sen. Majority Leader Charles Walker Jr., owner of the Augusta Focus, is currently under investigation for the alleged misuse of campaign funds, namely funneling money to family, friends and businesses he owned. Walker served in the state senate from 1990 to 2002, and has owned the Focus since its inception in 1981.

Allegations against Walker include spending more than $42,000 in advertising in the Focus for his 2000 election campaign. The normal cost of the printed ads amounted to only $6,000, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

On Aug. 20, two days after the FBI seizure, Focus attorney Don Samuel faxed a letter to U.S. Attorney Richard Thompson demanding the materials be returned. Samuel argued that seizure of the financial records functioned as a prior restraint on the operation of the newspaper, as the records contained advertising, circulation and sales information. Within 24 hours, the FBI returned copies of all materials taken during the search.

“Typically, a business type of subpoena doesn’t necessarily raise the same kinds of issues relating to a content type of action,” said Atlanta media attorney Peter Canfield. “Whenever you have a subpoena that overreaches and goes into editorial subjects, it’s pretty scary.”

Samuel said no reporters’ notes or confidential editorial information were taken by the FBI. However, investigators also didn’t say what exactly they were looking for, he added.

“In the aftermath of a raid on a newspaper office, neither Mr. Thompson nor the FBI have given the slightest hint as to why they raided the Augusta Focus,” wrote Walker, in a prepared statement by Focus editor Theresa Minor. “What federal crime are they investigating? They never answered that question.”

A grand jury continues to investigate the charges against Walker.

KM


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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