Truth Seeker’s Trials

On Dec. 9, Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Jim Taricani may go to jail for doing his job. Nearly four years ago, toiling for NBC-owned WJAR Providence, R.I., Taricani scored big: He got his hands on a videotape of a top aide of the city’s then-mayor, Vincent A. Cianci Jr., taking a bribe from an FBI informant.

U.S. District Chief Judge Ernest C. Torres, incensed by the leak, appointed a special prosecutor, Mark Desisto, and began trying to compel the reporter to reveal his source, escalating the pressure from $85,000 in fines to threatening him with criminal contempt. Taricani now faces up to six months in the slammer—this, for a 55-year-old reporter who had a heart transplant in 1996 and whose current ticker is turbocharged with a pacemaker.

Three hots and a cot may be Taricani’s fate, despite a twist in the case that, in a sane world, would guarantee his freedom. Joseph Bevilacqua, a lawyer for one of those convicted in the corruption case, has revealed to prosecutor Desisto that he was the source of the tape. In outing himself, Bevilacqua also claimed he had told Taricani long ago that he was willing to waive confidentiality but Taricani asked him to stay mum. (Bevilacqua had been questioned about the tape earlier in the investigation and had denied leaking it.)

In a statement, Taricani denied Bevilacqua’s claim that the reporter had asked for his silence, saying he would have never put his health, reputation, family and company at risk if he had not felt obligated to preserve Bevilacqua’s confidentiality.

“I believe Jim,” says John DePetro, who covered the case for Providence radio station WHJJ and was also questioned by the prosecutor about the leaked tape. “This thing is killing him.”

Now that Torres and Desisto know who gave Taricani the tape—which, after all, was the whole point of this exercise—you’d think the reporter would be off the hook. Guess again. Desisto, apparently believing Bevilacqua’s story, told the Associated Press that Taricani’s alleged insistence on keeping Bevilacqua’s identity secret against his wishes should be taken into consideration when Torres sentences the reporter.

Why is Desisto so doggedly pursuing this case? Hard to say. But radio reporter DePetro notes that Desisto and Taricani have history that may help explain the special prosecutor’s point of view. In 1984, when Claus von Bulow's conviction for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny, was overturned on appeal (the case was depicted by the movie Reversal of Fortune), Desisto was the prosecutor who lost to defense attorney Alan Dershowitz. Covering the trial, Taricani had become close to von Bulow and his girlfriend, Andrea Reynolds, and his reporting was seen as sympathetic to the defense. “I was in the courtroom when the von Bulow verdict came down, and Taricani was sitting next to Reynolds patting her hand,” says DePetro. “He got the first post-verdict interview with Claus.” Prosecutors can have long memories.

So should we. If confidential sources can’t expect to stay confidential and if reporters risk going to jail for seeking out the truth, then we’re all headed for serious trouble. Fourteen states have shield laws that protect reporters from prosecution, but no such federal protections exist.

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) has submitted a bill for a federal shield law, but it’s given little chance of passage. “You’re talking about a five- or six-year fight at least,” says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “I was meeting with some veteran First Amendment lawyers, and they were lamenting they didn’t go for a federal law back in the 1970’s post-Watergate era.” In those days, Dalglish says, “it was more understood why this kind of press protection is so necessary.”