LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge ordered a reporter Thursday to testify in the obstruction and conspiracy trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, saying the public’s interest in the case trumps constitutional protections for reporters.
Former Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Faturechi was resisting the government’s request to testify about a September 2011 article he wrote for the Times, and a radio interview with a public radio affiliate in February this year.
At a hearing at the First Street courthouse downtown, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said the reporter’s privilege under the First Amendment is “not absolute” and that the case is of “great public importance and interest.”
“Therefore the court is going to deny the motion to quash. At least, that’s my tentative view,” Anderson said.
Faturechi had asked the government to limit the questions to the “published” statements in the Times article and the radio interview, if he did have to testify.
Although Anderson said Faturechi’s testimony is relevant, admissible and “potentially highly probative,” he struck a note of caution.
The judge said he may revisit his ruling depending on prosecutors’ questions and the defense’s cross-examination.
Prosecutor Brandon Fox said at the hearing that his foundational questions would be limited, and would include queries about where the interview took place and who was present.
“The court certainly has discretion to limit cross-examination so that it does not go beyond the scope of the direct examination and matters affecting Mr. Faturechi’s credibility,” Fox wrote in court papers filed this week.
Before Anderson ruled, Faturechi’s attorney Kelli Sager called her client’s link to the case “tenuous” and “remote,” and said she was concerned that a ruling against her client would make it difficult for reporters for cultivate sources.
“Officials are never going to want to talk to them,” said Sager, who declined to comment after Anderson ruled.
Faturechi argued in a motion to quash that the reporter’s privilege under the First Amendment should protect him from the government subpoena and that ordering him to take the stand compromises his work.
“If sources view me as a potential investigative tool for the government, criminal defendants or private litigants, they may decline to provide information to me, impeding my ability to gather and provide information to the public about matters of significant public concern,” Faturechi said in a declaration. “I am concerned that if I am compelled to testify in this case, my ability to do my job in the future will be severely hampered because it could create the appearance of bias.”
Judge Anderson noted, however, that the reporter is not being asked to give up confidential sources or unpublished documents.
Faturechi will testify about a Times article of Sept. 29, 2011: “L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca gives details of FBI sting.”
The government also intends to ask him about a February 2016 interview with National Public Radio affiliate KCRW.
Baca is charged with obstructing an FBI investigation of jailhouse abuses and conspiring to hide informant-inmate Anthony Brown from investigators after jailers discovered an FBI phone was smuggled into Men’s Central Jail by a deputy.
In August 2011, Baca asked his second-in-command, convicted Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, to investigate how the phone ended up with Brown. The next month, Baca instructed officials to “do everything but put handcuffs” on FBI investigator Leah Marx, the government says.
At a 2013 meeting with prosecutors, Baca maintained he did not know that the FBI was investigating the jails, that he was not involved in any effort to keep agents away from Brown, and that he knew nothing about the plan for officials to corner Agent Marx outside her home. Two investigators eventually approached the agent and the interaction was immortalized on department video.
“You know, what’s interesting is when we first broke this story, he actually told me, he acknowledged, that he was aware and he sent these deputies to this FBI agent’s home,” Faturechi said in his interview for the radio show “Olney in L.A.”
In a response filed Monday, the government says Baca’s statements in the Times article suggest two motives for sending investigators to Marx’s home: to intimidate the agent and to retaliate against the FBI for approaching the deputy who smuggled the phone into the jail in a bid to turn him into an informant.
Baca was present in the court during proceedings. His trial begins next week.