Friday, May 3, 2002
Investigators Serving Search Warrant Close Metropolitan News-Enterprise
By KIMBERLY EDDS and ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writers
Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office investigators yesterday closed the Metropolitan News Company for three hours, 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 in a quest for documents they said related to a South Gate corruption probe.
The company, which publishes the Metropolitan News-Enterprise and several other newspapers, was one of 15 locations across the county where warrants were served in connection with the South Gate investigation.
Investigators, led by District Attorney’s Office Senior Investigator Chris Rentie, appeared at the newspaper company at 210 S. Spring St. in downtown Los Angeles at about 8:30 a.m. and 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. 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 team of 10 or 11 investigators then ordered employees out, leaving only Jo-Ann Grace on the premises.
Although a search was threatened none took place. Grace turned over the documents to the investigators at about noon after determining that the District Attorney’s Office already knew the name of the Albright firm and that client privacy consequently would not be compromised.
Publication of the Los Angeles Bulletin, an afternoon paper, was delayed because of the closure of the office.
The warrants were the latest event in a long-running probe of corruption in the turbulent city of South Gate.
On April 5, city Treasurer Albert Robles was arrested for allegedly making threats against state Sen. Martha Escutia, Assemblyman Marco Antonio Firebaugh and a South Gate police officer. Robles also was accused of having two illegal assault weapons, including a semiautomatic rifle.
The City Council voted 3-2 in closed session April 22 to pay a $100,000 fee toward Robles’ criminal defense.
A majority on the City Council—Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, and council members Maria Benavides and Raul Moriel—support Robles, but have been targeted in a recall campaign. Clifton Albright of Albright, Yee & Schmidt is representing the city in a series of lawsuits sparked by that recall drive.
Two other council members, Henry Gonzalez and Hector de la Torre, and City Clerk Carmen Avalos, were then targeted in a separate recall drive, and the first official step in that action was the publication of the intention to circulate recall petitions.
Jo-Ann Grace said District Attorney’s Office Senior Investigator Kimberly Riddle of the Public Integrity
Division called her several weeks ago and asked her to identify the customer for the Feb. 21 notices. Grace, a former staff attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, said she would give the office what it wanted if she was told who was being investigated, and asked Riddle to call back later.
Roger Grace said his wife suggested to Riddle that she send the company a “pocket subpoena”—a type of production order used in federal practice by the IRS.
No written request or demand for documents came from the office, and no additional calls came from Riddle, until the investigators showed up yesterday, Roger Grace said.
Roger Grace called Cooley and spoke with him, Assistant District Attorney Peter Bozanich, head of Special Operations, and Deputy District Attorney David Guthman, director of the Office of Fraud and Corruption. Grace said he told Bozanich and Guthman that they should let the reporters back in the office and agree not to search their desks because they would have no documents from the legal notice side of the business.
Grace said Guthman responded, “We don’t know that.”
The first floor of the MetNews office consists of an open floor plan, with reporters on one side and the business staff on the other. There is an aisle, but no physical barrier, between them.
Grace said the investigators “were clearly contemplating a search of the entire office, including the newsroom.”
Grace said his wife turned over the documents that were being sought after Bozanich named the law firm, showing there was no longer a privacy interest to protect.
“If the investigator had phoned back and identified the law firm [last month] we would have given the documents then,” Roger Grace said.
“If we had received a subpoena we would have complied, or something on a D.A.’s letterhead saying we were compelled to turn over the documents. Steve [Cooley] said they don’t play games like that. But a search of a newsroom is so abhorrent a prospect that acquiescence is precluded.”
Cooley’s office issued a two-page press release denying that its actions infringed in freedom of the press.
“This search had nothing to do with First Amendment rights,” Cooley said in the statement. “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.”
Cooley also said in the statement that investigators and Public Information Officer Sandi Gibbons spoke to a MetNews co-publisher two weeks ago and were “assured we would have full cooperation.”
“We were told all the Metropolitan News needed was legal document and they would turn over the records in question,” Cooley said. “But when the investigators arrived Thursday morning, editor and co-publisher, Roger M. Grace refused to cooperate with a lawful search warrant. A short time later, however, Jo-Ann W. Grace fully cooperated with the investigators and gave them the requested documents.”
Roger Grace expressed outrage at Cooley’s statements, referring to the comments as “total baloney.”
Grace said he was upset Cooley portrayed his investigators as having conducted a thorough search of the Metropolitan News office, while knowingly steering clear of the newsroom.
“They didn’t search anywhere,” Grace said. “They hadn’t gotten to that point.”
Grace also said that the news release falsely implied there was difference between him and Jo-Ann Grace over whether to turn over the documents. They both agreed to do so after it became clear the investigators already knew that the Albright firm placed the notices of intention to circulate petitions.
“Attorneys are supposed to make sure of the accuracy of the facts before making allegations,” Grace said. “Steve Cooley has made allegations recklessly without a determination of the facts.”
Journalism Professor Bryce Nelson, a former reporter with the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and former director of the USC School of Journalism, called the warrant and the threatened search “very strange.”
“The attempt to close the newsroom does seem to raise First Amendment issues,” Nelson said. “It seems to have interfered with the news process. I would hope that this district attorney and other district attorneys would pause and think before doing something like this.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company