Big Man Bites Back

An appeals court says Robert Riggs and Belo were the bad guys, not Dan Peavy

You can't really blame Dan Peavy if he gloats. For five years, the chuckles and the self-congratulating back pats have all been on the other side.

In 1996, when WFAA-Channel 8 investigative reporter Robert Riggs won the Peabody Award for a series of stories painting Peavy as a corrupt Dallas school board member, former Channel 8 news director John Miller told a Dallas Morning News reporter, "It's nice to win, you bet."

A year later, when a federal jury acquitted Peavy of all of the charges that had come out of the Riggs investigation, the Morning News did a story painting Peavy and co-defendant Eugene Oliver as having gotten away with it only because they wouldn't rat each other out.

In a corruption trial four years ago, and now in his suit against Channel 8, Dan Peavy keeps winning.
Doug Milner
In a corruption trial four years ago, and now in his suit against Channel 8, Dan Peavy keeps winning.
The 5th Circuit federal appeals court in New Orleans says First Amendment lawyer Paul Watler screwed up big-time.
The 5th Circuit federal appeals court in New Orleans says First Amendment lawyer Paul Watler screwed up big-time.

The News headline, over the bylines of Alexei Barrionuevo and Pete Slover, said: "Defendants' loyalty in Peavy case foiled prosecution, observers say; Rejection of plea deals left government without witness."

Now Peavy has in hand a long, scathing opinion from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans suggesting the only crooks in the Dan Peavy scenario may have been Miller, Riggs, Riggs' assistant, the company's outside lawyer, Paul Watler, and--most interestingly--unnamed upper management persons at the Belo Corporation, all of whom the court paints as conspirators in an illegal wiretapping operation.

In the Fifth Circuit opinion, some charges against Belo are stated as flat-out findings of the court: that Belo engaged in an illegal wiretap conspiracy, and that Riggs illegally disclosed the contents of illegal wiretaps to Belo personnel, law enforcement agencies, and lawyers. Some charges have been sent back to the district court in Dallas for trial, especially the question of whether Riggs' award-winning series on Peavy illegally disclosed contents of the wiretaps to a much larger audience.

The law allows the victim of an illegal wiretap to sue his attacker for damages.

The question of how widely Belo disseminated the contents of the tapes bears on how much money Peavy can collect.

Peavy is champing at the bit for a trial. "My attitude toward a trial is, bring it on!" Peavy said on the phone. "They don't have enough money. It's an issue of more than money. They basically destroyed my life as it was."

I called Riggs and his assistant, both of whom referred me to company lawyers. I called Miller. He didn't call back. Belo's outside lawyers, at Vinson & Elkins, referred me to David Star, corporate counsel for Belo. I called Watler, the former outside counsel who fares very poorly in the opinion, and Watler referred me to Belo corporate counsel as well. I called Belo corporate counsel, and they didn't call me back.

The Fifth Circuit's opinion was published July 31. The Morning News, which is owned by Belo, barely mentioned the opinion in a news digest inside the metro section.

The question in this case--and sometimes it's a more complicated one than it might appear on the surface--is whether the First Amendment gives reporters and news organizations the right to break the law. There are a lots of cases on the books in which the courts have said yes.

Reporters have broken many laws against publishing certain specific types of information. In most of those cases, the courts have ruled that the laws, whatever they were trying to suppress, were unconstitutional.

This is not that. This is about breaking a law that has nothing to do with the type of information involved. The law here is one that says you can't sneak into somebody's bedroom and record his conversation, no matter what he's talking about. This law is about theft and violation, not speech.

There are other similar cases working their way up to the Supreme Court in other parts of the country, all having to do with the recording of cellular or cordless phone conversations. The Fifth Circuit goes to some length in this opinion, however, to argue that this case is distinct from the others. The court says this is the only case in which a news organization took an active part in the wiretapping itself, knew that the wiretapping was illegal, and proceeded with the story anyway.

In a unanimous opinion brimming with colorful detail, the Fifth Circuit paints a fascinating picture of what unfolded within Channel 8 and Belo in 1996 while Riggs was preparing his stories about Dan Peavy and alleged insurance fraud within the Dallas school district. As a reporter myself, and as one who has sat through plenty of white-knuckled meetings with lawyers, I have to say that parts of this opinion were almost physically painful to read. It's difficult to imagine how any reporter could have been more poorly served by legal counsel and upper news management than Riggs seems to have been here.

But then I have to remind myself: Riggs won the Peabody. Peavy's life was ruined.

This case goes back to December 1994, when Charles Harman, a neighbor of Peavy, started intercepting Peavy's cordless phone conversations on a radio scanner. Harman claimed later that he had checked with law enforcement officials, who had told him that cordless phone conversations were not covered by the federal wiretap law. The court found that Harman's claim was not true and that no law enforcement authority had told him he could tape cordless phone calls legally.

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