Friday, May 3, 2002
Office of District Attorney Acts With Gross Impropriety
We are appalled by the antics yesterday of the Office of District Attorney. Eleven DA’s investigators converged on our office in downtown Los Angeles to search for evidence in connection with the placement of three notices of an intent to circulate recall petitions in South Gate. Later in the day, the DA’s Office sought to rationalize its conduct in a press release containing falsehoods.
The notices in question were published by this newspaper on Feb. 21. It had been placed by a law firm. The firm did not include its name and address at the bottom of the notice.
About three weeks ago, an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office telephoned Jo-Ann W. Grace, co-publisher of this newspaper and president of the Metropolitan News Company. The investigator was seeking information concerning the placement of the notices. Grace responded she was reluctant to betray a customer by acting contrary to its privacy interests. She stated, however, that she would turn over documents which identified the customer if she were sent a subpoena. She also suggested that if the DA’s Office already knew the identity of the law firm, and the investigator would correctly state the law firm’s name, she would confirm the identity and, with no privacy interest to protect, would cooperate. Grace suggested that the investigator phone back if she decided to disclose what law firm was being investigated.
Thus, the agreement was to provide information 1.) in response to a subpoena, or 2.) if the District Attorney’s Office demonstrated that it already knew the identity of the law firm that placed the notice.
Yesterday, with no advance warning, investigators showed up at our office demanding documents. They produced a search warrant authorized by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders.
Documents were not produced in response to that search warrant. A search warrant is quite a different device from a subpoena. A newspaper, being a business, is subject, like any other business, to discovery of its business records. A newspaper is not reasonably subject, except under the most extreme of circumstances, to a search of its newsroom. Drawers and file cabinets contain unpublished information including notes of remarks made off the record and remarks that were not for attribution; integrity of the journalistic process is compromised where there is snooping in a newsroom by government investigators. Inasmuch as a search warrant carries with it the threat of a search if there is a non-production of documents, and the threat of a search of a newsroom being repugnant to the concept of a free press, there could not be acquiescence to the demands of those waiving the warrant.
The newspaper’s entire staff was ejected from the office. An investigator indicated that in light of the size of the office, it could take two to three days to complete the search.
District Attorney Steve Cooley discussed the matter by telephone with this newspaper’s editor/co-publisher Roger M. Grace. Two of Cooley’s lieutenants were on the speaker phone with him—Peter Bozanich and David Guthman. Cooley did not evidence an appreciation of the gravity of the conduct of his office.
Grace protested that there was no conceivable basis for barring reporters and the press crew from the office other than out of spite for the non-cooperation, and remarked that it was “not reasonably conceivable” reporters would have documents in their desk drawers relating to legal notices. Guthman responded: “We don’t know that.”
If the lawyers in the DA’s office do not know that reporters would not harbor business records in their desks, they lack common sense.
Cooley, we regret to observe, appeared to lack an ability to grasp that his office had embarked upon a rash action, and that every effort should have been made to have averted the situation.
After several minutes of discussion, Cooley commented that confirmation as to the identity of the law firm was not needed because his office already knew the identity, and what was needed was evidence.
Bozanich identified a firm. Roger Grace conveyed this to Jo-Ann Grace; she confirmed the accuracy of the information; she provided relevant documents to investigators. The investigators departed the premises and the staff was readmitted—after waiting outside for about three hours.
At about 4 p.m., the District Attorney’s Office issued a press release. It contained these quotes from Cooley:
“This office is very sensitive to and respectful of First Amendment issues as it [sic] relates to news rooms. There was nothing about this search that would indicate otherwise.
“This search had nothing to do with First Amendment rights. The District Attorney’s office did not search the newsroom of the Metropolitan News. This was a focused and narrow search. We were only requesting business documents for one transaction.”
The implication of that statement is that the investigators searched portions of the office other than the newsroom, thus respecting the need not to intrude on the news operations. The truth is that the investigators embarked on a surveying of the office, ascribing a number to each room. They did not actually begin the task of looking through documents. Moreover, there was no stated intention of avoiding an inspection of drawers and cabinets in the newsroom. To the contrary, there was an intention stated by an investigator to search the entire office and there was a statement by Guthman to the effect that drawers in reporters’ desks were not considered off limits.
Most telling is that the search warrant obtained from Pounders authorized a search of “all rooms…files…[and] desks” on the premises. It was to the discredit of Cooley and his office that a warrant for the unrestricted search of a newspaper office was sought—and the disgrace of Pounders that this was judicially approved.
The false impression Cooley sought to convey as to his office respecting First Amendment rights, when it showed an utter lack of concern for those rights, brings into question the level of integrity of this office-holder.
(Also subject to being seen in the course of a search pursuant to the unrestricted warrant were privileged files of attorney Lisa Grace-Kellogg relating to the Metropolitan News Company and to her private clients, and confidential papers possessed by Jo-Ann Grace as a member of the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation.)
The press release went on to quote Cooley as follows:
“Two weeks ago, District Attorney investigators and Public Information Officer Sandi Gibbons talked to a co-publisher of the Metropolitan News. The investigators were assured we would have full cooperation. We were told all the Metropolitan News needed was a legal document and they would turn over the records in question. But when investigators arrived Thursday morning, editor and co-publisher, Roger M. Grace refused to cooperate with a lawful search warrant. A short time later, however, co-publisher Jo-Ann W. Grace fully cooperated with the investigators and gave them the requested documents.”
The District Attorney’s Office was not told that service upon us of “a legal document” was all that was needed to secure our cooperation. It was told that we would comply with a particular type of legal document: a subpoena. We never reneged. We were not served with a subpoena; we were served with a search warrant. We do not dispute the assertion by Cooley in the telephone conversation and by investigators that a subpoena duces tecum may not be utilized where charges have not yet been filed. That’s irrelevant to the point that cooperation was pledged in the event a subpoena were served; and cooperation was never promised in the event of a search warrant—a prospect never discussed.
The statement by Cooley portrays one co-publisher countermanding another. Irresponsibly, Cooley states a scenario as fact when it is untrue. Yesterday morning, the co-publishers were in accord in declining to turn over the documents in light of the use of a search warrant. After the entire newspaper staff was ejected from the building, Roger Grace went home to use a telephone to contact Cooley. He learned from Bozanich that the DA’s Office thought the law firm was “Aldrich, Yee & Somebody.” Bozanich did not have the relevant papers before him. Roger Grace telephoned Jo-Ann Grace, who had been the sole person readmitted to the building, to report what Bozanich had said. She thought the information was correct. She checked, and phoned Roger Grace at home to advise that the firm was Albright, Yee & Schmit. It was mutually agreed that, inasmuch as we would not be revealing the customer’s identity to investigators since they already knew it, the documents should be released.
Cooley manufactured an instance of discord between the co-publishers, who are also spouses (married for nearly 36 years). This creates a question as to just how often Cooley speaks without knowing what he is talking about.
The newspaper was shut down for three hours through governmental action. This should not happen in a nation where freedom of the press is a cherished right. The illegality of this occurrence is patent.
Steve Cooley’s insouciance in connection with rights of the press when he was contacted by telephone, and his deceptive rationalization in his press release of what occurred, cause us to question the fitness for office of a man we had earlier admired.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company