Tuesday, May 7, 2002
Pounders Says He Gave ‘Careful Attention’ Before Approving Warrant for Search of MetNews Office
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders yesterday said he gave “careful attention” to a warrant presented to him by investigators to search the Metropolitan News Company in a quest for financial documents they said related to a South Gate corruption probe before deciding the search would not infringe on First Amendment rights.
“To me that’s just a business question, that’s not a First Amendment issue,” Pounders said.
Investigators from the District Attorney’s Office closed the Metropolitan News for three hours Thursday, ordered reporters and other employees out of the building and threatened a search of all company offices, including the newsroom, as they served a search warrant signed by Pounders. The Metropolitan News Company was one of 15 locations named in warrants signed by Pounders in connection with the South Gate probe.
“It was not hastily done,” Pounders said of reviewing the warrants. “The locations were numerous, but the warrant materials were not.”
Pounders said he was not aware of the controversy surrounding South Gate and the ongoing news coverage of the situation.
The investigators demanded documents that indicated the role of a law firm-Albright, Yee & Schmidt-in paying for a legal advertisement that ran in the Feb. 21 edition of the MetNews, which is published by the Metropolitan News Company The ad was a notice of intent to circulate recall petitions against three elected officials in South Gate.
Company President and MetNews Co-publisher Jo-Ann Grace and her husband, MetNews Editor and Co-Publisher Roger Grace, at first declined to turn over the documents, explaining that they owed a duty of privacy to their advertising clients and objecting to the scope of a search that would take in the newsroom and reporters’ files and notes.
The search warrant specifically permits investigators to search anything found in “ADVERTISEMENT, ACCOUNTS RECEIVABLE, EDITING and/or ANY OFFICE WHICH CAN PROVIDE INFORMATION ON ALBRIGHT, YEE AND SCHMIDT PLACING PUBLICATIONS ON RECALL OF SOUTH GATE CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS.”
Pounders said including “editing” in the potential scope of a search was not a violation of First Amendment rights because investigators were looking only for financial records and not information on confidential news sources or unpublished information. Investigators were permitted to search where they thought it was “reasonable” for the financial records to be.
Pounders said he and the investigators did not anticipate any resistance from the Metropolitan News Company.
“I think all of us expected that the MetNews would turn over the financial records,” Pounders said.
Although a search was threatened none took place.
Jo-Ann Grace turned over the documents, she said, after determining that client privacy would not be compromised since the District Attorney’s Office already knew the name of the Albright firm.
“A search warrant is more official than a subpoena,” Pounders said, noting that attorneys can issue subpoenas, but a search warrant can be issued only by a court.
Pounders suggested that the Graces could have done what many other searched locations did when served with the warrant: turn over the requested material, but have the seized materials sealed until objections could be heard in court.
“We had 10 lawyers in court the following morning making objections,” Pounders said.
Former District Attorney John Van de Kamp suggested yesterday that a neutral special master be appointed to supervise the execution of search warrants in situations similar to what happened at the MetNews.
California law requires searches of lawyers’ and doctors’ offices—when the doctor or lawyer is not a target of the investigation—to be overseen by court-appointed special masters, who must seal materials if a claim of privilege is made.
“It seemed to me that the general situation was very much akin to going into a lawyer’s office,” Van de Kamp said.
Having a neutral party available to filter out files that have nothing to do with the issue at hand could prevent breaches of confidential relationships, Van de Kamp said.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company