Busted For An Interview
By Grant Mahon
Grant Mahon is a reporter for the Reading Eagle/Times newspapers in Pennsylvania.
To Jerome Cohen, the whole affair is as clear as black and white. A law was broken, he says, and as district attorney of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, he faced a sworn obligation to prosecute the offenders.
From that simple premise has grown one of the more bizarre court cases in modern journalism. The alleged crime: a newspaper's publication of an on-the-record interview that the prosecution says was illegally obtained.
Cohen brought felony charges last December against the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre and four members of its editorial staff. Publisher Dale Duncan, Vice President and Editor Allison Walzer, Managing Editor Cliff Schechtman and columnist Steve Corbett are accused of breaking Pennsylvania's wiretap law. The law provides for maximum jail terms of up to seven years and fines of up to $15,000, but those familiar with the case doubt such penalties will be assessed even if the journalists are convicted.
The charges stem from Corbett's tape-recorded interview with Glen Wolsieffer, a dentist who was later convicted in the 1986 murder of his wife, Elizabeth. Duncan says Cohen and trial Judge Gifford Cappellini "wanted to put some manners on us" in retaliation for the newspaper's unrelenting coverage of the murder. Cohen says that allegation is baseless. Other Wilkes-Barre journalists – such as editorial writer James Gittens of the rival Citizens' Voice – say the Times Leader's coverage was sensational and resent the martyr role the newspaper has assumed.
Corbett conducted the interview by telephone with Wolsieffer in 1989, prior to the murder trial. The transcript shows Corbett made it clear the interview was for a column he was preparing but never told the dentist he was taping the call.
Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that prohibit recording conversations without the consent of all parties; the law further prohibits sharing illegally recorded conversations. The Times Leader journalists are charged under this latter provision of the law (the two-year statute of limitations had expired on the first part by just days).
While the case centers on such a narrow legal issue that it may have only limited application for the industry, it nonetheless raises unsettling possibilities.
In the broadest sense, it's an example of "trying to punish a newspaper for publishing accurate and absolutely truthful information," says Samuel Klein, a lawyer who briefly counseled the Times Leader and who works for the First Amendment Coalition, an organization of Pennsylvania journalists. "I think that is a very dangerous sign."
Corbett himself revealed the existence of the tape last summer, while Wolsieffer was seeking a new trial, in a casual conversation with a special state prosecutor. The prosecutor notified the court and the Wolsieffer defense team. Agreeing that the tape might contain new evidence, Cappellini ordered the newspaper to surrender it. But the Times Leader printed the transcript last August before complying with the court order. The newspaper feared relinquishing the tape recording without publishing it first could have in some way compromised its shield law protection, Duncan says.
Wolsieffer's request for a new trial hinges partly on the fact that the tape wasn't disclosed earlier, although Cohen and the paper agree the tape provided no new evidence. Yet publishing it was grounds for prosecuting the journalists, says Cohen, who finished an interim term of office in January. "If I hold you up and don't get any money, I still committed a crime," Cohen says.
At press time it was unclear whether the case would go to trial. Cohen's successor, Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., has assigned assistants to handle it, and they're preparing for a hearing expected to be held in early March on a defense motion to dismiss the case.
The Times Leader defense is twofold, according to Duncan: Because Corbett's interview was via an interstate phone call (Wolsieffer was living in Virginia), only federal wiretap laws apply, and they don't require multi-party notification. The larger argument is that publication of the information is protected by the First Amendment, he says.
"I seem to remember," notes Klein, "the Pentagon Papers were stolen." ###