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Subpoenaed reporters snagged in leak battle

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Although a Texas police chief's perjury case was postponed Thursday, a local newspaper editor and reporter who were subpoenaed in the case are…

Although a Texas police chief’s perjury case was postponed Thursday, a local newspaper editor and reporter who were subpoenaed in the case are not off the hook yet.

As The Victoria Advocate reports, Victoria Police Chief Bruce Ure was indicted in October 2007 over statements he gave a grand jury on leaks to the media of details of an investigation into a former sheriff. That sheriff, Michael Ratcliff, has also worked for District Attorney Stephen Tyler and was ultimately charged with a sex crime.

Advocate attorney Laura Prather says Tyler "clearly has a vendetta" against people who have spoken to the press or reported on Ratcliff’s criminal case: "Every reporter who has reported on this has been subpoenaed as a witness," she said, and that sends a message to people that if you talk to the media or report on the trial, you will be subpoenaed. 

Those subpoenas in turn essentially prevent coverage of the case, Prather went on, because if all the reporters are sworn in as witnesses, and thus barred from speaking about it, "who will report on the trial?"

Prather said Advocate editor Chris Cobler and reporter Gabe Semanza were subpoenaed to testify in Ure’s perjury trial because they had interviewed either Ure or another city official also indicted for leaking information on the Ratcliff investigation.

Arguing the matter Tuesday before District Judge Robert Chesire, Lather said the subpoenas should be thrown out on the grounds that the journalists were not relevant or material to the Ure case. She pointed out that the information Tyler wants can be found in newspaper stories or through non-media sources.

But Tyler contends that newspaper articles cannot be taken as fact, according to another Advocate story, and that, anyway, the Advocate journalists are key witnesses to the fact that Ure spoke to the newspaper.

Ure had testified in front of a grand jury that he "only divulged information on the [Ratcliff investigation] with his immediate supervisors and legal staff," the newspaper reported.

This is Semanza’s fourth subpoena related to the case, Prather said. Another Advocate reporter, Leslie Wilber, had been subpoenaed, but the judge found her testimony was not relevant or material to the case.

Fortunately, Prather said, that means Wilber can go back to reporting on the case.

In fact, now that the delay in Ure’s case has occurred, the other journalists are also temporarily released from their gag orders as witnesses, Prather said. But the trial is expected to start April 20, and the issue will surface again.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story indicated that the perjury case ended in a mistrial in early April. In fact, it was only postponed to allow the court to empanel a new jury after one juror was disqualified.