Publisher jailed for filing false harassment complaint
- The publisher of a sporadically produced newspaper and long-time critic of officials in Warren County claims she was targeted for her critical reporting.
Editor’s note: Maxam’s conviction was later overturned because she was denied counsel and was not present during a court hearing on the case. The charges were completely dismissed in December 2005.
March 27, 2003 — June Maxam, who has published the North Country Gazette in Chestertown, New York, since 1981, is serving a nine-month sentence in the Warren County Jail after a state appellate court in January rejected her appeal of felony convictions for falsely accusing her neighbors, Donald and Eleanor Lambert, of harassment.
“The record reveals that defendant has had a long and tortured relationship with the Lamberts, as well as just about every elected official and police agency in her community,” the court wrote in its decision. “Defendant claims that all of these people have demonstrated animus toward her because she has criticized them in a local newspaper that she intermittently publishes.”
But Maxam maintains that her news coverage of officials in Chestertown and of the Warren County Sheriff lead them to seek retribution against her.
“I feel total frustration and dissolution with the criminal justice system,” Maxam said March 27 from jail. “To think that those in power can abuse the power of their position to manipulate the system to use it against their critics.”
In a more than 3,000-word story submitted by Maxam in February to Martinelli Publications, a group of weekly newspapers in Westchester County New York, she described the experiences that led up to her convictions.
The publisher who printed her story agrees that Maxam’s coverage of corruption “made her enemies.”
“Why should she spend 100 days in jail?” asked Ralph Martinelli, publisher of Martinelli Publications in Yonkers New York. “We ran her whole story because it rang of such truth.”
“I think she has a story to tell,” Martinelli said. “As a member of the press, we tried to help her the best we could, [ . . . ] to bring this to the public’s attention. It did have an impact down here. People couldn’t believe that this kind of stuff could happen in this day and age in America.”
Since 1985, Maxam wrote, she has had run-ins with county and city officials.
After Maxam ran a 15-part series in 1992 investigating the Warren County Sheriff, “members of the sheriff’s department intimidated my advertisers to stop them from advertising, the newsstand dealers were told not to distribute the newspaper,” Maxam wrote.
By 1994, Maxam said, her opponents had “effectively shut down the newspaper by cutting off my revenues.”
After that time, Maxam continued to publish occasionally using donations to pay for printing the newspaper.
Her troubles continued to escalate. Maxam wrote that in 1997, she was harassed by the Lamberts, who had an association with Town Justice E. Wendell Ross.
“Lamberts had long teamed with Ross and my opponents apparently aggrieved by my reporting on a zoning issue involving them,” she wrote.
Maxam filed harassment complaints against Eleanor Lambert, who Maxam said had taken photos of Maxam’s parent’s house. Eleanor Lambert maintains that Maxam was photographing her.
“One morning in August, 1998, eight police officers came after me, two state police investigators, two sheriff’s department investigators, two uniformed state troopers and two uniformed sheriff’s deputies, one on overtime, to charge ME with harassment of Eleanor Lambert,” Maxam wrote.
In July 2000, Maxam was convicted of two counts of filing false harassment charges and sentenced to nine months in jail, according to court documents.
Because a date was incorrect on one of the complaints filed by Maxam against Lambert, it was considered a falsified document. Maxam said the error was a typographical mistake.
“I served 80 days of those charges before I was released on a stay. In December, 2000, I was forced to a six-day trial on the harassment charges after the town justice refused to give my retained attorney a 48-hour adjournment,” she wrote.
In a March 17 letter to Martinelli, Maxam said: “I have done 18 days of the 100 remaining in my ridiculous sentence for telling the truth. [ . . . ] It’s a scary situation to know what the government can do to its critics.”
Maxam is eligible for early release in May.
According to Maxam, her attorney, Theresa Suozzi, earlier this week filed a motion challenging the sheriff’s authority to bring the charges in the first place.
According to a report in The (Glen Falls) Post-Star, a daily newspaper, Maxam also faces nine months in county jail for harassing the Lamberts, which she is appealing. She also faces misdemeanor charges for allegedly hindering police efforts to serve her court papers and allegedly resisting arrest.
(New York v. Maxam; Media Counsel: Theresa M. Suozzi, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.) — JL
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press