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Reporter Can Hide Source of Sex-Scandal Coverage

(CN) - Journalist's privilege protects a reporter for an NBC affiliate from having to answer the questions of an ousted Florida politician whose corruption and "sexting" scandal created a national media circus, a Florida appeals court ruled.

Jeff Burnside reported for NBC's Miami affiliate, Channel 6, on suburban Homestead's investigation of its former city manager, Mike Shehadeh, in 2010.

Shehadeh was fired by the Homestead City Council in February of that year for "conduct unbecoming a public official," according to Burnside's reporting. The city offered Shehadeh $100,000 in severance and then hired a private investigator when the politician rejected that deal and demanded $265,000.

Reportedly tasked with uncovering evidence that Shehadeh used his office to supply his brother with lucrative construction contracts, the investigator also stumbled into Shehadeh's racy Internet and phone history.

Shehadeh reportedly used his work computer to visit websites catering to dominatrix fetishes and Arab singles. The investigation also uncovered that Shehadeh had been "sexting" one of his subordinates, Burnside reported.

Other Homestead officials tendered their resignations as the scandal blazed through the city, uncovering a swathe of e-mails with racist undertones that employees had been forwarding to each other.

Shehadeh fired back with a breach of contract lawsuit against Homestead and subpoenaed Burnside to testify. Claiming that political rivals had leaked his texts, Blackberry messages and e-mails to the media, Shehadeh wanted to depose Burnside about whether he followed the proper channels for requesting public records.

Identifying Burnside's source, Shehadeh asserted, could lead to additional claims against the city.

After a trial court granted Shehadeh limited deposition, Burnside and his station, WTVJ, asked for a writ of certiorari to quash Shehadeh's subpoena. Florida's third district appeals court granted the application on Wednesday, finding that the reporter was entitled to qualified privilege.

"Shehadeh has alleged that 'the CD has been circulated to a number of news organizations and other private individuals,' but there is no indication in the record before us that any of the 'other private individuals' have been questioned regarding the source of their copies," Judge Vance Salter wrote on behalf of the court.

"Shehadeh has an array of discovery procedures available to determine whether any of the commissioners or Homestead employees 'leaked' information to Burnside or WTVJ, as an alternative to questioning professional journalists."

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