Reno vs. Belo

The U.S. attorney general accuses WFAA of violating anti-wiretapping laws in the Peavy case

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has accused WFAA-Channel 8 television and its owner, the Belo Corp., of criminal complicity in the 1994-1995 wiretapping of former Dallas school board member Dan Peavy.

In a pleading filed under seal July 6 with the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, the Justice Department said a Dallas judge had wrongly exonerated Belo of criminal conduct. Belo and its news staff broke federal criminal wiretap laws in the 1994-1995 wiretapping of former Dallas school board member Peavy and should be punished under those laws, according to Justice Department pleadings.

Last October, U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer in Dallas ruled that Channel 8 investigative reporter Robert Riggs and Belo had violated portions of the federal wiretap law. But Buchmeyer further ruled that Belo and Riggs were protected from prosecution by the First Amendment. The civil suit in which that ruling was made, brought by Peavy against Riggs and Channel 8, is on appeal at the 5th Circuit.

Former DISD trustee Dan Peavy believes his privacy was violated by a conspiracy between WFAA and his neighbor. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno seems to agree.
Doug Milner
Former DISD trustee Dan Peavy believes his privacy was violated by a conspiracy between WFAA and his neighbor. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno seems to agree.

Reno's intervention against Belo in the lawsuit has not yet been reported in Dallas because the case is under seal and the Belo Corp. was the only media company in Dallas that knew of the intervention until a source informed the Dallas Observer last week. If the court in New Orleans agrees with Reno, criminal charges could be brought against Riggs and Belo executives. Penalties under the federal wiretap statute range from a fine to five years in prison, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Umphres in Dallas.

Justice Department officials in Washington declined to discuss the Peavy case because it is under seal, but they provided the Observer with information about similar cases elsewhere in the country in which Reno has intervened. Basically Reno's argument in these cases is that information stolen through wiretapping doesn't become "clean" when someone passes it on to a reporter, especially if the reporter has some knowledge or complicity in the actual wiretapping.

U.S. Magistrate Jeff Kaplan had found that Belo violated two-thirds of the statute by using information from illegal tapes of Peavy's phone conversations to develop stories about him and by letting the public know what was on the tapes. But Kaplan said Belo had not participated in "procuring" the tapes, meaning the actual making of the tapes. Peavy's former neighbor Charles James Harman pleaded guilty in August 1996 to charges that he had taped Peavy's private conversations on a cordless phone and passed them on to Riggs and to a producer who did some of Riggs' reporting. Harman was fined $5,000.

Kaplan's argument, endorsed by Judge Buchmeyer in ruling against Peavy, was that using and divulging information on the tapes was a basic speech issue under the First Amendment. Kaplan said the federal "Title III" wiretap law was unconstitutional in its attempt to punish the press for using information reporters themselves did not steal.

Mike Quilling, Peavy's attorney, says he felt there was a strong argument to be made that Riggs had encouraged Harman to tape Peavy and thereby had participated in procuring the tapes under the definitions in the statute. "You don't have to do the taping yourself," Quilling says. "You can pay somebody else 50 bucks to make the tapes, and you have still procured them."

Quilling did not imply that Riggs had paid Harman, only that a jury should have been allowed to decide whether Riggs and other Channel 8 employees had encouraged Harman to tape or even told him how to do it.

Any ruling by a judge holding a federal statute to be unconstitutional triggers an automatic review by the U.S. attorney general, according to Scott McIntosh of the Justice Department. But according to documents provided by McIntosh from other similar cases, the attorney general's language in these cases has been especially tough, accusing media companies like Belo of "reprehensible conduct" in their complicity with wiretappers.

Peavy also had sued the Observer, which was the first media outlet to publish the actual content of tapes in which Peavy was overheard using racial epithets. That suit was dismissed because the Observer had obtained a transcript of the tape from Dallas school district documents, not from an illegal wiretap.

In 1995, Riggs authored a series of investigative reports on Channel 8 outlining alleged double-dealing between Peavy, then a member of the Dallas school board, and insurance agent Eugene Oliver. Eventually Peavy and Oliver were indicted in a case brought by U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins, but a Dallas jury found them not guilty in November 1996.

Lawyers for Belo did not respond to the Observer's request for comment on Reno's intervention against them. Belo corporate spokesman Harold Gaar did not return calls. Riggs declined to comment on the legal case because the filings are under seal at the request of Peavy's lawyers. But Riggs did say he wished the full facts of the case could be made public.

"I wish that everything in this case could be unsealed so that everyone who has a child in DISD and everyone who pays taxes to DISD could see the facts of what went on at DISD and at the highest levels of the political establishment and also in the U.S. Attorney's Office," he says.

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