NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · CALIFORNIA · Confidentiality/Privilege · Oct. 24, 2006
Newspaper held in contempt, could face fines in BALCO case
Oct. 24, 2006 · The San Francisco Chronicle has agreed to be held in contempt of court and could end up paying fines up to $1,000 a day the newspaper continues to protect its reporters’ confidential sources.
Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada have already been cited for contempt of court and could face up to 18 months in prison for refusing to reveal to a grand jury the identity of an anonymous source who gave them information about athletes’ testimony in the BALCO steroid investigation. Their sentence has been suspended until an appeals court can hear their case.
According to an agreement between the Chronicle and the government, the newspaper’s fine will be suspended through the appeal as well.
The agreement is primarily a time-saver, according to Jonathan Donnellan, a lawyer for the Chronicle‘s parent company, the Hearst Corp.
Fainaru-Wada and Williams appeared before a grand jury and refused to testify; in response, prosecutors filed a motion to compel their testimony. The court granted this motion and ordered the reporters to testify. When they refused, they were held in contempt of court for disobeying this order.
The newspaper received a subpoena as well, but lawyers for the Chronicle came to the agreement with prosecutors so that the newspaper will be automatically held in contempt of court without a grand jury appearance or a motion to compel testimony.
According to Donnellan, this agreement is beneficial because it skips unnecessary legal steps.
“The government would have had to call us in before grand jury and ask questions; we would have declined to answer,” he said. This would then have to be followed by a motion to compel, and finally, a finding of contempt.
Because Fainaru-Wada and Williams have been held in contempt of court as well, their case can now be consolidated with the Chronicle‘s for purposes of appeal if the agreement is approved.
“By doing this all by agreement,” Donnellan said, “we avoid the need to prolong the process. We now have the prerequisites behind us and we can proceed to the court of appeals.”
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco has not yet signed the proposed order, but he is expected to do so in the coming weeks. Although the agreement sets the daily fine at $1,000, both sides agreed that the amount of the daily fine is negotiable.
(In re Grand Jury Subpoenas; Media counsel: Jonathan Donnellan, Hearst Communications, New York) — ES