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Libby Trial Raises Ethics Issues for Media

Journalists should remove themselves from story

Last week jury selection got underway in the trial of I. Lewis Libby, Jr., the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney. Libby is accused of lying to a grand jury and the FBI investigating who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the media. Plame’s name first appeared in a July 14, 2003 column by Robert Novak, indicating that she worked at the CIA and was married to former ambassador and Iraq war critic Joseph C. Wilson IV.

Libby is not on trial for being the original source of the leak. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, also expected to testify, has admitted he first disclosed the name to Novak. (A subsequent investigation found Armitage did not violate federal laws prohibiting the disclosure of C.I.A. officers.)  Libby is on trial for allegedly misrepresenting conversations he had with several members of the media, including NBC’s Tim Russert, Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper, and former New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

Libby’s trial begins next week and it is sure to garner a significant amount of media attention. Not only because it involves the war in Iraq, but also because of the “A” list names scheduled to testify, including Vice President Cheney, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, and Russert.

Here’s what I would like to know:  Has Tim Russert recused himself from working on the Libby trial for NBC?  How about the other reporters involved, such as Woodward and Cooper?  Libby is being prosecuted for perjury in part because of the grand jury testimony of Russert and Cooper. The trial will pit the credibility of these journalists, and the media institutions they represent, against Libby’s. Has NBC News or Time magazine taken any steps to wall off Cooper or Russert from the Libby story?

We expect judges to remove themselves in cases in which they have a vested interest. Why not journalists who preside over these cases in the court of public opinion?

Newsmaker of the Year

I want to extend my personal congratulations to Judicial Watch client Eileen Garcia, who was recently named highlighted as a key “Newsmaker” by the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot for her work to end illegal government financing of the Laguna Beach day worker center. Eileen and her husband, George Riviere, have actively challenged the taxpayer-funded day laborer site since 2004.

Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit against the City of Laguna Beach on October 3, 2006 for spending taxpayer funds to operate the Laguna Day Worker Center, a day laborer site that helps illegal aliens find jobs and provides other public benefits, including English language instruction.

According to public records, the City of Laguna Beach provided a $21,000 grant for Fiscal year 2005-06 and a $22,000 financed grant for Fiscal Year 2006-07 to the South County Cross Cultural Council, a non-profit organization charged with operating the facility. This represents the largest “community assistance” grant provided by the City of Laguna Beach, which also uses taxpayer funds to provide portable restroom facilities, trash removal and to lease the property from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

The center does not determine whether or not its day laborer clients are eligible to work in the U.S. It does not even require that day laborers provide any formal identification (just a $1 fee when they get a job). Yet, according to several studies, the large majority of day laborers are in the United States illegally and therefore not eligible to work in the United States.
 
The arguments in this lawsuit are similar to those we’ve made in several other cities subsidizing or attempting to subsidize day laborer sites, such as Herndon, Va.: Federal law prohibits the hiring of an undocumented worker, or referring an alien for employment for a fee, knowing the alien is not authorized for such employment. Federal law also requires verification of eligibility to work in the United States.

So, why did Eileen choose to take up this cause?  This is what she told us in an interview with our monthly publication, the Verdict: “I am concerned for the future, for what is going to come of America. I would like to see America stay the strong nation that it always has been, and I feel that this massive invasion of a foreign country is going to destroy our values.”

We’re really grateful for all Eileen has done to expose the Laguna Beach day worker center, and we’re pleased she was recognized for her courage and persistence. For more details on JW’s Laguna Beach lawsuit and our other illegal immigration investigations and lawsuits, please click here.

Lawsuit Against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich

Last Tuesday, Judicial Watch filed an open-records lawsuit against the office of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D.-Ill.), who is under federal investigation on several fronts, including fraudulent hiring practices. (Blagojevich allegedly hired politically connected people in favor of veterans and others who, according to Illinois law, are supposed to receive preferential treatment.)  

Judicial Watch’s lawsuit, filed on January 16, 2007 with the Cook County Illinois Circuit Court, specifically seeks, among other documents, any and all grand jury subpoenas received by the governor’s office or any state agencies under the governor’s control. (The subpoenas reportedly were issued by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office.)  We believe the citizens of Illinois deserve to know the details of any corruption allegations in the governor’s office.

Blagojevich’s office, of course, refuses to release the subpoenas, claiming they are exempt from public disclosure. In a letter to Judicial Watch dated December 7, 2006, Allison Benway, legal counsel for Blagojevich, stated, “This Office cannot confirm or deny the existence of the documents requested, and even if this Office were to have documents responsive to your request, such documents would be exempt from release…”

This is not a view shared by Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan.

Judicial Watch obtained a strongly worded letter from Madigan to the governor’s legal counsel, dated October 26, 2006, indicating she believes the grand jury subpoenas are subject to public disclosure. “Based upon the information with which we have been furnished, the exceptions to the disclosure requirements of the [Freedom of Information] Act cited by the Governor’s office do not authorize the withholding of subpoenas. Without legal support, the Office of the Governor and the agencies under his control cannot withhold Federal grand jury subpoenas in their possession and must release these documents pursuant to a FOIA request.”

Blagojevich ought to listen to the advice of the state’s top legal officer and release these documents.

Here’s an interesting side note:  Blagojevich reportedly has ties to Antoin Rezko, the same indicted political fundraiser who recently consummated a peculiar land deal with Democratic Presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Small world.

A Call for Ethics Enforcement

Last week, news broke that former Ohio Rep. Bob Ney was sentenced by a federal judge to 30 months in prison for his role in an Abramoff-related scandal. He was the first congressman linked to Abramoff to be convicted and sentenced, but not be the last. Despite all the recent (and welcome) action by Congress to reform its ethics rules — in the end, the best way to reduce corruption in Washington is to send corrupt members of Congress to prison for their wrongdoing.

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Written By

Mr. Fitton is the president of Judicial Watch, Inc., a conservative, non-partisan educational foundation, promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law.

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