Tuesday, July 19, 2005
Settlement Reached in Suit Over Search of MetNews Offices
By Kenneth Ofgang, Staff Writer
The company that publishes the MetNews has settled its claim that District Attorney Steve Cooley violated federal law when he authorized a search of the company’s offices three years ago.
The Los Angeles County Claims Board yesterday approved a $40,000 payment to the Metropolitan News Company, a condition of the settlement reached last month.
Cooley agreed, as part of the settlement, to revise department policies dealing with searches of news media premises. The settlement was reached with the assistance of a pro bono mediator, Encino attorney Lee K. Alpert, who is a friend of Cooley and of MNC principals Roger and Jo-Ann Grace.
The MetNews was closed for several hours on May 2, 2002 after investigators probing official corruption in the city of South Gate presented a search warrant at the newspaper’s office.
The warrant named the “editing” department among those to be searched for the documents.
Company personnel at first declined to turn over papers whowing what law firm had ordered a legal notice as part of an abortive recall effort against several elected city officials. The investigators then ordered company personnel out of the building and prepared to search.
A standoff was ended, and a search of the newsroom averted, when company President Jo-Ann Grace turned over the document after it was ascertained that the District Attorney’s Office already knew the identity of the law firm. She said she had previously offered to provide documents if the prosecutors would tell her what law firm was under suspicion.
Cooley at the time defended his office, and continued to contend that its actions were reasonable under the circumstances, even as he admitted that things could have been handled better and issued a new policy in November 2002.
The policy, part of Special Directive 02-03, states:
“It is the policy of this office not to seek search warrants for news media offices or homes of news media personnel when less intrusive measures are available.”
Cooley said at the time that in the future, prosecutors and investigators would consider requesting that the documents they seek be turned over at some site away from the newsroom.
“We thought it through based on our experience with the Metropolitan News, where we were there lawfully,” Cooley said at the time.
The papers he sought “would be evidence of corruption by an entity which had placed a certain advertisement or notice. It’s really a matter of technique in obtaining it.”
In a joint statement yesterday, Cooley and MNC agreed that “[n]either the newspaper, its management, nor its employees were under suspicion of any wrongdoing” and that “[l]ess intrusive methods could have been used to secure the sought business records.”
The statement also acknowledged the November 2002 policy changes, and that the district attorney has provided additional training on media searches. The office will make further revisions to the policy, including a reference to the federal Privacy Protection Act, on which the MNC suit was based, and the Supreme Court decision in Zurcher v. Stanford Daily.
Zurcher permits limited newsroom searches pursuant to a warrant. The Privacy Protection Act imposes further limits on such searches by declaring that, with exceptions for national security cases and those involving an immediate threat to public safety, it is “unlawful for a government officer or employee, in connection with the investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense, to search for or seize” work products or “documentary materials, other than work product materials, possessed by a person in connection with a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public communication.”
MetNews Editor and Co-Publisher Roger M. Grace said in a statement that the controversy would never have arisen “had cognizance been taken of the statute and the case.”
Co-publisher Jo-Ann W. Grace commented:
“A search warrant was totally unnecessary. If the investigator had told me in April that the office knew that Albright, Yee and Schmidt had placed the notice, I would have sent over the documents.
“In any event, the documents were useless to them. What the investigators wanted to find out was the source of the payment to us. As of the day the raid took place, no payment had been made. If they had simply asked if there had been a payment, I would have told them there hadn’t been.”
A spokesperson for Cooley referred a request for comment to Principal Deputy County Counsel Roger Granbo, who was unavailable.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company