PROVIDENCE, R.I. A local television reporter was convicted of criminal contempt today for refusing to say who gave him an FBI videotape showing a city official taking a bribe.
Jim Taricani, of WJAR-TV, faces up to six months in prison when he is sentenced by U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres on Dec. 9.
Taricani, 55, broke no law by repeatedly airing the tape, which was among evidence collected by the federal government during its probe into corruption at City Hall under former Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. But a special prosecutor was appointed to find out who leaked the tape because the leak violated a court order.
At today’s trial, Torres denied a defense motion to dismiss the case and said it is “a complete distortion of the issue” to argue First Amendment privilege, which Taricani had claimed.
“He’s not being punished for airing the tape,” Torres said. “He wouldn’t be here” if he told special prosecutor Marc DeSisto who gave him the tape, Torres added.
Last fall, Torres ordered Taricani to answer questions about the tape, but Taricani refused, saying he has a constitutional right to keep his sources confidential.
“The issue is a very simple one,” Torres said today. “Did (the reporter) willfully violate this court’s order? The evidence is clear ... and undisputed” that he did.
After the 45-minute trial, Taricani called the decision an “assault on journalistic freedom.” He said he never expected that he would have to serve time for doing his job.
“I made a promise to my source which I intend to keep,” Taricani said.
The tape shows an undercover FBI informant giving a cash-bribe to top Cianci aide Frank Corrente. It aired in February 2001, two months before Cianci, Corrente and others were indicted in the investigation code-named “Operation Plunder Dome.” Cianci and Corrente were convicted and are serving time in federal prison.
In March, Torres found Taricani in civil contempt for refusing to disclose his source and imposed a $1,000-a-day fine until he did. WJAR, which is owned by NBC Universal Television Group, paid $85,000 for its reporter until the judge suspended the fine two weeks ago, saying it had not achieved its goal.
Around the nation, several reporters now confront possible fines or jail, including in cases of the leaked identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame and a lawsuit against the government by nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee. Taricani is the first of this crop of reporters to be convicted of criminal contempt.
“I admire him enormously for sticking to his word,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “If journalists start revealing confidential sources, they are going to be viewed as an arm of the government and government investigators.”
Torres said before today’s trial that he wouldn’t sentence Taricani to more than six months in prison because of the reporter’s health. Taricani underwent heart transplant surgery in 1996.
“My biggest concern is my health,” Taricani said outside the courthouse, adding that he follows a strict daily regiment, including taking pills every 12 hours.
Taricani said he would provide the court with more details on his health before the sentencing hearing. If he does go to prison, he hopes it is to a facility experienced in dealing with people who have received transplants.
Another potential factor in his sentence could be whether he knew when he received the videotape that it was in violation of a court order. The judge said he’d like Taricani to answer that question, something the reporter later said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll do.