From the Winter 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 25.
By Rebecca Daugherty and Gil Shochat
A federal judge sentenced a former analyst for the Drug Enforcement Agency in January to one year in jail for giving unclassified information to the The (London) Times.
“Anyone who would leak information poses a tremendous risk,” Judge Richard Story of the U.S. District Court in Atlanta said in sentencing former DEA employee Jonathan Randel.
The U.S. attorney in Atlanta prosecuted Randel under a federal criminal statute that prohibits “selling” government property. Randel pleaded guilty to the charges, fearing a long sentence. He is appealing the sentence in hopes that it will be reduced.
U.S. Attorney William Duffey, Jr. told reporters that the prosecution “stands as a warning” to any federal employees who might consider providing sensitive but unclassified information to anyone, including journalists, outside of the federal government. A statement from Duffey’s office attributed the sentence to a violation of Randel’s employment agreement.
Randel gave a freelancer for the Times information showing that a bank in Belize owned by British billionaire Michael Ashcroft housed accounts of suspected drug dealers. Randel also gave the reporter other information from DEA files about Ashcroft, some of it from Dunn and Bradstreet financial reports.
The files did not implicate Ashcroft in any criminal activity. However, they were an important source in a series published by the Times showing an association between the Ashcroft-owned bank and drug trafficking in the tiny Carribean country where lax banking laws attract drug money.
Infuriated by the implications, Ashcroft in 1999 brought a libel suit against the Times. In the course of those proceedings, the DEA identified Randel as the source by computer file information on leaked documents sent by e-mail to the reporter. The Times brought Randel to London to be deposed and reimbursed him for his salary and expenses while he was there.
Ashcroft and the Times settled the libel case. The newspaper ran a front-page apology and statement that it had no evidence that Ashcroft was involved in drug sales. The Times did not accuse Ashcroft of illegal behavior, but in Britain truth is not necessarily a defense to libel charges.
Ashcroft’s private attorney in Atlanta then successfully lobbied for Randel’s prosecution by the U.S. government.
To establish that Randel had “sold” valuable government property, the government brought in a London literary agent to testify as an expert witness as to the economic worth of the news. He set that worth at as much as $80,000 based on the on the news value of the Times’ story in the competitive London market. Prosecutors set the value at $13,000, and claimed Randel received that sum.
Despite the guilty plea, Randel’s attorney Steven Sadow disputes that his client actually sold government property. The DEA lost nothing monetarily, he said.
Sadow said that the money the newspaper gave Randel was not quid pro quo but for lost salary and travel expenses for his testimony. Stories based on the records Randel gave the Times appeared many months before he received the payments, which followed the libel suit.
“This decision would put the fear of God in government employees so that they think twice or even three times before they release something. I am scared by the government unilaterally controlling leaks and the flow of information,” Sadow said. “It concerns me that the government has all the power to quash leaks and control information in that way. It harks back to how bad regimes behave.”
“The DEA post-9/11 has a heightened concern that information will be leaked,” Sadow said. “We had to settle the case in this environment. Going in front of a jury would have been extremely difficult.”
Randel’s sentence is monstrous, Times legal adviser Alastair Brett told The (Manchester) Guardian in mid-January. “Journalists talk to all sorts of people . . . and we don’t expect them to be banged up for it.”
In a lengthy examination of the trial, reporter Robin McDonald of the Fulton County Daily Report in Atlanta noted that the law the government used to prosecute Randel has existed for decades, and establishes a maximum 10-year prison sentence for the theft, embezzlement or conversion of government property.
She pointed out that the statute also extends penalties to anyone who receives stolen government property.
In late January, weeks after Randel’s sentencing, The (London) Daily Telegraph reported that the U.S. prosecutors have set “alarm bells ringing” at the Times. The assistant U.S. district attorney, along with other officers, wrote the Times that they want to interview the newspaper’s staff, including its former editor and its legal advisor, in London in order to “conclude” the Randel investigation.
The Telegraph quoted an unidentified U.S. lawyer “close to the case,” who said the Americans are “deadly serious” about bringing fresh indictments. “They believe the Times was part of a conspiracy in Britain to commit a crime in America.”