WASHINGTON — A judge is trying to bankrupt an ex-reporter with daily fines as much as $5,000 for refusing to disclose her sources for stories about the 2001 anthrax attacks, press advocates said Saturday.
They also said the case involving Toni Locy shows why Congress should pass a federal shield law for reporters.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton on Friday denied a request from Locy to stay payment of fines for a contempt citation pending an appeal and ruled she must "personally bear the responsibility of paying the fine the court imposed."
While at USA Today, Locy wrote about a former Army scientist, Steven J. Hatfill, whom the Justice Department identified in 2002 as a "person of interest" in the anthrax attacks. They killed five and sickened 17 others weeks after the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hatfill has denied any involvement in the anthrax attacks and sued the government for violating his privacy by discussing the investigation with reporters. No one was charged in the attacks.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said Walton appears to be trying to bankrupt Locy, a former Associated Press reporter who now is a professor at West Virginia University's journalism school.
"What he's doing is essentially saying, 'Toni Locy I am going to destroy your life'" she said. "This is just plain crazy. I know you're not supposed to call a federal judge arrogant, but this is arrogant."
The judge pointed to statements Hatfill's lawyers made in court papers in explaining his rationale. Hatfill's legal team said that while Locy's reporting was conducted "within the scope of her employment for USA Today, her contempt was not. It began long after she left the employment of USA Today."
Starting at midnight Tuesday, Locy was ordered to pay fines of $500 a day for the first week, $1,000 a day for the second week and $5,000 thereafter until she appears before the judge April 3.
In his opinion, Walton frequently cited the case of a former nuclear weapons scientist, Wen Ho Lee, who was once suspected of spying. In 2004, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson fined five reporters $500 a day each for refusing to identify their sources for stories about the scientist.
After Jackson postponed the fines pending appeals, news organizations, including the AP, eventually agreed to pay Lee $750,000 as part of a $1.6 million settlement of his privacy suit against the government, based on their expectation the Supreme Court would decline to hear appeals. The high court turned away the appeal after the settlement was announced.
Dalglish said forcing reporters to reveal sources in the face of monetary fines is in some ways more chilling than threats of jail, which come about in contempt orders issued in criminal cases. Dalglish and others are also worried about the government using civil cases to force reporters to reveal sources.
"There's not a national security interest at peril in this case," she said. "This is all about reporters being able to do what they do every day."
Congress is considering passage of a federal shield law that would protect reporters from revealing their sources. Such laws are in place in 33 states. A bill passed the House but has stalled in the Senate since last year.
On Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee leaders wrote Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and urged them to bring the bill before the full Senate. The letter noted the Locy case specifically.
"We need to protect the relationship between reporters and their sources," wrote Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Walton's ruling comes a little more than a week before the kickoff of "Sunshine Week," a national initiative organized by media, civic groups, libraries and nonprofit organizations to raise awareness of First Amendment and open-government issues.
Debra Gersh Hernandez, coordinator of the event, said she hopes the judge's action will spur action on the shield law.
"I certainly hope so," she said. "Because it's just so appalling. Hopefully it will just be the kind of wake up call that people need."