December 6, 2004

December 6, 2004 | Commentary on

Disaster Aid Boondoggle

Hurricane Frances made landfall more than 100 miles north of Miami-Dade County earlier this year. But that didn't stop thousands of residents there from getting nearly $28 million in federal disaster aid.

Top winds reached only 47 mph in Miami-Dade County during the Labor Day weekend storm, so damages were limited to some fallen power lines and uprooted trees, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other disaster-relief officials.

Yet residents used their relief checks to buy more than 5,000 televisions allegedly destroyed by Frances, as well as 1,440 air conditioners, 1,360 twin beds, 1,311 washers and dryers, and 831 dining sets.

Residents also used their relief checks to fix or replace more than 600 vehicles, pay temporary rent for 4,300 people and pay for thousands of dollars worth of dental work.

So much disaster aid flowed to Miami-Dade County that one liquor-store owner estimated that his store cashed more than $500,000 in FEMA checks. Federal officials even blamed storm-damage payments in six claims on "ice/snow."

These revelations came from a Freedom of Information Act request by the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel fordocuments showing damage claims and relief payments. The newspaper's reporting reminds us that FOIA laws are key to exposing government waste and fraud. That's why corrupt, incompetent or lazy public officials often delay, evade or ignore FOI laws.

But what happens when public officials go beyond simply resisting FOI laws, to using criminal prosecutions to silence offending reporters and their sources? Consider the case of WJAR-TV reporter Jim Taricani in Providence, R.I. Taricani was convicted Nov. 22 of criminal contempt of court for refusing to disclose a confidential source. The NBC reporter could get up to six months in jail in his Dec. 9 sentencing hearing.

Taricani's "crime" began more than three years ago when he accepted -- and his station broadcast -- a videotape of a Providence official accepting a bribe from an undercover FBI informant. The videotape came from sealed evidence in an FBI probe that eventually resulted in criminal convictions of prominent Providence officials, including former Mayor Buddy Cianci.

A federal prosecutor demanding to know who leaked the videotape subpoenaed Taricani. A U.S. District Court judge then cited Taricani for contempt and imposed a $1,000-a-day fine when he refused to reveal his source.

After a failed appeal to a higher federal court, the District Court judge stayed the fines -- more than $85,000 paid by NBC -- and gave the reporter two weeks to cough up his source. He again refused and was convicted of criminal contempt.

Taricani's case is not unique. At least 10 journalists have faced similar situations in recent months, including Judith Miller of The New York Times, who was convicted in October for refusing to tell Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about a confidential source. Fitzgerald is probing who leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak. Fitzgerald also is demanding that journalists disclose confidential sources in an unrelated case involving a Chicago charity accused of aiding Islamic terrorists.

The Taricani and Miller cases signify a disturbing trend of government officials resorting to subpoenas and criminal prosecutions to silence confidential sources who would otherwise provide journalists with documents proving fraud, negligence or outright criminality in government.

Protecting journalists' confidential sources is vital, considering how frequently and effectively public officials resist complying with the FOIA and other laws designed to protect transparency and accountability in government. Confidential sources are sometimes the only way the public can get the truth about what is happening behind closed doors in government.

"I wish all my sources could be on the record," Tarciani said in a statement following his conviction. "But when people are afraid, a promise of confidentiality may be the only way to get the information to the public, and in some cases to protect the well-being of the source."

Proposals for a federal shield law to protect journalists and their confidential sources are likely to be considered by Congress in 2005. There are now shield laws in 31 states and the District of Columbia.

Passage of a federal shield law would backstop the FOIA, while refocusing federal prosecutors and judges on putting criminals in government in jail -- instead of the reporters who expose the bad guys.

Mark Tapscott is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire