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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Did Leaks to Blackledge Signal Criminal Activity?

Glynn Wilson, of Locust Fork World News, raises that question today with a post about former News reporter Brett Blackledge.

After winning a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Alabama two-year colleges scandal, Blackledge recently left Birmingham for a position with Associated Press in Washington. Wilson presents several video segments that raise questions about both the quality of Blackledge's reporting and possible criminal activities involving his newspaper and federal prosecutors.

The News' reporting led to the criminal prosecution of Democratic State Rep. Sue Schmitz in a trial that started this week.

Blackledge states in the video that he was handed information in a box. How could that indicate criminal activity? Well, it depends on what was in the box and who gave it to Blackledge.

Reports Wilson:

"If the materials include grand jury materials, then this may have been a criminal act,” says New York attorney and writer Scott Horton, who keeps up with the cases in Alabama for his blog “No Comment” on the Harper’s magazine Website at Harpers.org.

Horton has written before, referencing the Don Siegelman case, about the serious nature of grand-jury leaks:

The leading newspapers in two of Alabama’s major cities—Birmingham and Mobile—are sibling publications under joint ownership. They gave extensive and tendentious coverage of the investigation and prosecution of Don Siegelman. And these papers had access to nearly every aspect of the prosecution’s case, including its witnesses and its evidence. They knew the charges before their formal presentation; they even knew in some detail what transpired before the grand jury. The press is free to make inquiries and publish what it learns, and the more the better. However, the prosecution is obligated to maintain the secrecy of the proceedings, and the disclosure of grand jury secrets by the prosecution is a very serious violation of Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Usually the publication of grand jury secrets in the press is taken as sufficient for a judge to trigger an inquiry into violations of Rule 6(e) by the prosecution. In this case, the federal prosecutors openly and publicly lauded the newspaper reporters who were disseminating their materials. This practice of “poisoning the well” is extremely abusive and the judge should have stopped it.

So who would be criminally liable here? It appears it would be federal prosecutors. Could criminal liability fall on reporters and editors at the newspaper? The answer appears to be no. But it raises this question: What if the reporters and editors knowingly engaged in a conspiracy to leak grand-jury information as part of a plan to ensnare Democrats in legal proceedings and allow Republicans to take over all branches of Alabama government?

An excellent article at ethicsscoreboard.com addresses many of the issues connected to grand-jury leaks. This article was based on the steroids-related case of former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds.

As for Blackledge, Wilson wonders if his work truly merited consideration for a Pulitzer:

It also raises some doubts about the qualifications of the reporting for the award, since it doesn’t look like he did much “investigating,” and was perhaps just handed the information by federal prosecutors in possible violation of judicial codes of ethics.

The stories came preliminary to charges being brought against a number of legislators, including Sue Schmitz of Huntsville, who worked in a program that helps troubled teenagers. Her trial is ongoing in the federal courthouse in Decatur, and her lawyers have indicated an interest in this video as evidence.

The Pulitzer committee awards the prizes each year for “a distinguished example of investigative reporting by an individual or team, presented as a single article or series, in print or in print and online.” The prize pays a cash award of $10,000.

Blackledge’s award is billed as a reward for “his exposure of cronyism and corruption in the state’s two-year college system, resulting in the dismissal of the chancellor and other corrective action.” It was moved by the board from the Public Service category.

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