Court sought source of videotape leak
From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 40.
A radio talk-show host in Providence, R.I., invoked a reporter’s privilege against naming confidential sources when he was questioned on Jan. 9 by a special prosecutor investigating a federal case.
Special Prosecutor Marc DeSisto had argued that radio host John DePetro had not proven he was a journalist entitled to special First Amendment protection against a subpoena for his testimony.
DeSisto sought the radio host’s testimony as part of a court-ordered investigation into how a government videotape of alleged corruption at Providence City Hall wound up in the hands of a television station, which broadcast the videotape a year ago.
U.S. District Judge Ernest C. Torres did not state specifically whether a radio host is a journalist in his Dec. 18 order requiring DePetro to submit to the prosecutor’s questioning. However, the order allowed DePetro to assert a reporter’s privilege during the deposition if DePetro had a good-faith reason for believing the privilege protected him from a specific question.
DePetro could be compelled to answer the questions or sanctioned if the special prosecutor believed DePetro’s refusal to answer was frivolous, the order said.
DePetro raised the privilege fewer than five times during the deposition, said his attorney, Joseph Cavanagh Jr. DeSisto did not object during the deposition but said he would review the transcript and decide later if he would pursue further testimony, Cavanagh said.
DePetro’s program, “Independent Man,” airs daily on Rhode Island radio station WHJJ-AM.
He has frequently reported on the federal investigation, named “Operation Plunder Dome,” that has led to indictments charging Mayor Vincent A. Cianci and others with racketeering.
The government videotape purportedly showed Cianci’s top aide taking a cash bribe from an undercover FBI informant, according to news reports. NBC affiliate WJAR-TV/Channel 10 broadcast the videotape in February 2001.
The leak of the videotape may have violated a federal court order that prohibited attorneys in the racketeering case from disclosing contents of the government videotape. When Channel 10 broadcast the footage, Torres appointed DeSisto to investigate whether the court order had been violated.
DePetro said he did not provide the TV reporter with the tape. But DePetro’s testimony has been sought because “they think he might have information that could lead to the disclosure of how Channel 10 got the tape,” said his attorney, Cavanagh.
But Cavanagh said that, because DePetro is a journalist, the special prosecutor must first exhaust other avenues of obtaining the information before seeking DePetro’s testimony. For example, the prosecutor could seek testimony from Channel 10 employees, whom the prosecutor did not subpoena to testify.
DePetro said he is a journalist because he cultivated sources and gathered news for broadcast. He should be allowed to protect his sources, he said.
“Some of the people I get information from are members of organized crime,” he said. “I cannot be perceived in this town that I am willing to act as an arm of the government or just give up information like that. People would be hesitant to trust me, and I could put my family’s life in danger.”
DePetro does not believe that the aim of the subpoena was to stop his broadcasts. But the subpoena has chilled his sources.
“I suddenly became radioactive,” he said. “It definitely cut into my ability to get in touch with certain people, to gather information from certain people.” (U.S. v. Cianci) — MD