PROVIDENCE, R.I. A defense lawyer has acknowledged leaking an FBI videotape to a TV reporter found guilty of criminal contempt, but claims he never asked that his identity be kept secret.
Joseph Bevilacqua Jr. confirmed to a special prosecutor on Nov. 24 that he provided the undercover videotape to WJAR-TV reporter Jim Taricani, according to papers filed in federal court on yesterday. Bevilacqua is the lawyer for former city tax official Joseph Pannone, who was convicted in a Providence corruption scandal.
Taricani, 55, was to be sentenced next week for criminal contempt, facing up to six months in jail for refusing to identify the source. It was unclear whether the confirmation of the source’s identity would change Taricani’s fate.
Special prosecutor Marc DeSisto in a court filing identifying the source said Taricani’s sentence should recognize that he “willfully refused to comply with a valid order of the court.”
DeSisto said Bevilacqua came forward voluntarily after learning he might be subpoenaed and told him he had previously offered to allow Taricani to identify him, but the reporter asked him not to reveal himself. In 2002 Bevilacqua voluntarily waived his right to confidentiality in the case, the prosecutor said.
“Contrary to Mr. Taricani’s repeated assertions, both publicly and before this court, Mr. Bevilacqua, the ‘source,’ did not request any promise of confidentiality in exchange for the videotape,” DeSisto wrote.
Taricani denied that at an afternoon press conference.
“I would never have jeopardized my health and reputation and put my family and my company through this ordeal if my source had not required a promise of confidentiality,” Taricani said.
In a statement last night, Taricani said Bevilacqua “repeatedly insisted that I keep his name in confidence, despite the fact that he had signed a waiver. He told me he had to sign the waiver, otherwise it would have raised suspicions that he was my source.”
Bevilacqua’s attorney, Thomas Tarro, told WJAR by phone that his client stepped forward because of “his concern” that Taricani would go to prison.
The tape, which showed a top aide to former Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. taking a bribe, was aired in 2001 by the NBC affiliate before trials began in the case.
Cianci and the aide shown on tape, Frank Corrente, were convicted in 2002 and are now serving time in federal prisons. Pannone also was convicted.
The reporter broke no law by airing the tape, but U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres appointed DeSisto to find out who leaked the tape because the court had ordered no one to release any tapes from the investigation.
DeSisto said Bevilacqua testified under oath he gave Taricani several videotapes in late 2000, including the bribe tape, that were part of the prosecution’s case against the so-called Plunder Dome defendants.
Taricani returned the tapes, copying only the bribe tape that was later broadcast, according to Bevilacqua, who in February 2002 denied being the source.
Calls to Bevilacqua and DeSisto weren’t immediately returned.
Bevilacqua will likely face charges for handing over the tapes after agreeing to the court order not to do so, and could lose his law license, said David Yas, an attorney and editor of Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly.
“This puts Bevilacqua in a lot of hot water,” said Yas, who called the timing of his admission unusual.
“If Bevilacqua had wanted to help (Taricani’s) cause, this was not the time to come forward. The horse is out of the barn,” Yas said, citing the guilty finding against the reporter.
The U.S. Attorney’s office released a statement yesterday saying the source’s identification “lifts the cloud of suspicion which had been permitted to linger, unfairly, over the FBI and this office.” There had been speculation by a number of commentators that the source of the tape was in the federal office.
In refusing to identify his source, Taricani became one of several journalists locked in battles with the government over confidential sources. Reporters for Time and The New York Times have been held in contempt in the investigation into the disclosure of an undercover CIA officer’s identity.
Taricani, originally from Newington, Conn., has insisted he has a First Amendment right to keep his source confidential.
In March, the judge found Taricani in civil contempt and imposed a $1,000-a-day fine until he identified his source. WJAR, owned by NBC Universal, reimbursed Taricani $85,000 for the payments until the judge suspended the fine a month ago, saying it had not achieved its goal.
On Nov. 18, the judge found Taricani in criminal contempt.
Taricani’s lawyers have asked that he be sentenced to less than 30 days of home confinement because of health concerns. He suffers kidney problems, has had a heart transplant and takes medication to keep his body from rejecting the heart, his lawyers said.