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Journalist kept from covering trial by appearance on witness list

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         NEVADA         Confidentiality/Privilege         Aug 1, 2001    

Journalist kept from covering trial by appearance on witness list

  • Federal prosecutors subpoenaed Nevada journalist as witness, but ultimately never called him in case against felon.

A Las Vegas reporter who was slated to testify in a federal criminal trial on July 25 and was therefore excluded from the trial was ultimately never called. Rolando Larraz, editor and reporter for the Las Vegas Tribune, said the subpoena and exclusion were done to keep him from covering the trial.

“As a witness, I could not be in the courtroom,” Larraz said. “As I put in my front page article this week, I think they did that intentionally just to keep me away from the court, the trial.”

Larraz was subpoenaed in the criminal case of Jerry Burgess, a felon charged with illegal possession of a weapon, whom he has known for nearly 30 years.

The journalists agreed to testify on the condition that he would only confirm the accuracy of what ran in the Tribune.

“Mr. Burgess trusts my integrity and has confidence in my legal right to keep our conversations and interviews confidential,” Larraz wrote in the Tribune on July 23. “I do not intend to violate that confidence or my legal privilege as a reporter to keep my investigatory findings confidential!”

Larraz interviewed Burgess in relation to the present charges. Larraz’s attorney, Chris Rasmussen, said he expected Larraz would be a rebuttal witness, if needed, and was not surprised that his client was not called to testify.

The Tribune is a weekly newspaper with four employees and a 10,000 circulation, Larraz said.

According to Justice Department guidelines, the attorney general must personally sign off on any subpoenas issued to journalists. Justice Department spokesperson Chris Watney said in this case the approval of a deputy attorney general was the same as if Attorney General John Ashcroft had approved it.

“I’ll tell you very generally, you have to be a legitimate reporter for the attorney general to have to approve a subpoena,” she said.

Watney said a “legitimate” reporter was “someone working for a news organization, I don’t know the entire list of things, but someone who probably has been published as a reporter and is working as a reporter.”

The Justice Department guidelines regarding news media subpoenas do not define “news media.”

Larraz’s is at least the third subpoena issued to a journalist since Ashcroft took office in February. In March, he approved subpoenas of two reporters — Declan McCullaugh of Wired and John Branton of The (Vancouver, Wash.) Columbian — in the prosecution of “cypherpunk” Jim Bell in Tacoma.

Watney refused to confirm or deny whether the Ashcroft had approved a subpoena issued to Vanessa Leggett, a Houston author and lecturer. Leggett was found in contempt of court on July 20 for failing to turn over research notes from interviews she did from a murder investigation. On July 6, Leggett lost a motion to quash a subpoena issued to her. She is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) and is aided by a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The Justice Department’s Office of Enforcement Operations, Policy and Statutory Enforcement Unit reported in 1998 that prosecutors sought permission to issue subpoenas on the news media 77 times between 1993 and June 2, 1998. Of the proposed subpoenas, 57 were approved, four were not approved, and 16 were withdrawn or not forwarded to the attorney general.

(U.S. v. Burgess; Media Counsel: Chris Rasmussen, Las Vegas) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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