NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · TEXAS · Newsgathering · March 30, 2007
Freelance photographer faces felony charge
March 30, 2007 · Photographing a major car accident has led to a third-degree felony charge for a freelance photographer in Wharton, Texas.
The photographer, Gaston Elmer Cavender, has taken pictures of accidents and fires for the local fire department for many years.
But the photos he took of a January accident in which a police chief died have prompted prosecutors to charge him with misusing official information, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Cavender is accused of selling to newspapers photographs that were taken while he was serving as a volunteer firefighter and therefore acting as a “public servant.”
Cavender’s attorney, Richard Manske, said his client was given an honorary badge and vest by the fire department but was not awarded any of the benefits, such as a pension plan or a free supply of water, that volunteer firefighters regularly receive. Cavender cannot even ride in the fire trucks or any other department vehicles, Manske said.
Even Wharton city officials and the fire chief have told the San Antonio Express-News that Cavender’s position was honorary.
Joel White, a media attorney and former president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said it is clear Cavender did not serve any official role.
“All they are doing is interfering with newsgathering,” White said. “It is incomprehensible that it has gone this far.”
The photographs that Cavender took of the fatal Jan. 19 accident ran in area papers and were shown to several firefighters and police officers.
Cavender told the Express-News that on Jan. 21, a police sergeant confronted him and demanded the pictures and negatives of the accident, leaving Cavender with the impression that he would go to jail if he did not turn them in. A police spokesman insisted to the newspaper that Cavender forfeited the photos voluntarily.
Meanwhile, Ron Sanders, the editor of the Wharton Journal-Spectator, says that he owns the photographs. “I am the one who provides him with film and I do the developing, so I own the pictures,” Sanders said.
Cavender is scheduled to go to trial in Wharton County next week, according to the Express-News.
(Texas v. Cavender, Media Counsel: Richard L. Manske, Manske & Manske, El Campo, Texas) — MA