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Justice Department obtains reporter's home phone records

By The Associated Press


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Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson

WASHINGTON — A news story about Sen. Robert Torricelli apparently prompted the Justice Department to secretly obtain the home phone records of an Associated Press reporter three months ago.

U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White disclosed in an Aug. 20 letter to the reporter, John Solomon, that the government subpoenaed telephone records for incoming and outgoing calls at his home from May 2 to May 7. White was appointed last spring to oversee the Torricelli investigation.

Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Dryden declined to comment on the matter yesterday.

On May 4, an AP story under Solomon's byline quoted unidentified law enforcement officials as saying Torricelli, D-N.J., had been recorded on a wiretap in 1996 discussing fund raising with relatives of a prominent Chicago crime figure.

Law enforcement officials can be prosecuted for disclosing information obtained under federal wiretaps.

AP President and CEO Louis D. Boccardi said, "We are outraged by what the Justice Department has done and we will seek any available legal redress."

The Justice Department's actions "fly in the face of long-standing policy that recognizes what a serious step it is to go after a reporter's phone records," Boccardi said. "We hope that this secret assault on the press is not an indication of the Bush administration's attitude toward a press free of government interference."

"I think the Ashcroft Justice Department is sending a bad signal," said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "They are reopening avenues of investigation concerning journalists that we had hoped had been resolved."

Separately, the Justice Department succeeded in jailing a writer in Texas last month for refusing to turn over her research into a 1997 society murder that is being investigated by federal prosecutors.

First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said a Justice Department subpoena of a journalist's telephone records is extremely rare.

"I cannot say that every time the government seeks to obtain telephone records of journalists it necessarily violates the First Amendment, but there's no doubt that the decision of the government to go so far as to obtain these telephone records raises constitutional questions of a high order of delicacy," Abrams said.

Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson approved the subpoena for the reporter's records, according to the letter mailed to Solomon.

Attorney General John Ashcroft disqualified himself from the matter.

Torricelli campaigned last year for Ashcroft's Democratic opponent in the U.S. Senate race in Missouri. Ashcroft lost to Jean Carnahan, who stepped in after her husband was killed in a plane crash.

According to the AP story on Torricelli in May, unidentified law enforcement officials said the intercepted call received new scrutiny two years later when allegations surfaced of thousands of dollars in illegal straw donations to Torricelli's campaign. The law enforcement officials told the AP that several people have been questioned about the intercept and whether Torricelli or his staff ever encouraged them to disguise donations.

Leslie said that once the Justice Department determined that it would subpoena the reporter's phone records, the agency could have notified the AP in advance to give the news media an opportunity to contest the matter.

"The idea here is that none of this is the typical kind of criminal evidence that can be destroyed so why not give the news media a chance to challenge it?" Leslie said.

The Code of Federal Regulations says negotiations are necessary prior to subpoenaing telephone records of a member of the news media if "such negotiations would not pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."

Meanwhile, federal investigators have also subpoenaed several bookstores for purchase records of eight customers, including a key witness in the Torricelli probe, The Washington Post reported today.

An attorney for Arundel Books said the bookstore received a subpoena Aug. 16 related to the probe, according to the newspaper.

"Any time someone is seeking a subpoena regarding a person's reading habits, the First Amendment comes into play. The relationship between readers and their bookstores should be protected," Stephen Rohde, Arundel's attorney, told the newspaper.

He also told the Post that the bookstores' attorneys "are trying to resolve it and don't want to discuss all the twists and turns in the press."


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