PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A TV reporter was sentenced Thursday to six months of home confinement for refusing to say who leaked him an FBI (search) videotape of a politician taking a bribe.
Jim Taricani (search), 55, was found guilty last month of criminal contempt for defying U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres' order to identify his source, and could have gotten up to six months in prison.
The judge went along with the punishment recommended by prosecutors, saying the only reason he did not send Taricani to prison was the reporter's precarious health: Taricani had a heart transplant in 1996 and takes medication daily to prevent organ rejection.
Taricani is one of several journalists nationwide who have become locked in First Amendment battles with the government over confidential sources. Among them are reporters for Time and The New York Times who have been threatened with jail as part of an investigation into the disclosure of an undercover CIA (search) officer's identity.
Less than a week after Taricani was convicted, Providence defense attorney Joseph Bevilacqua Jr. came forward and admitted he was the one who leaked the tape. But under the law, that did not get the reporter off the hook.
In sentencing Taricani, the judge said the WJAR reporter had no First Amendment right to protect a source who broke the law by providing him with information. He disputed claims that punishing Taricani's behavior was an assault on the First Amendment.
"The assaults we have here are assaults on the rule of law, assaults on the system of criminal justice," Torre said.
He also chided journalists in general for "thinking they have "exclusive, unreviewable authority" to use confidential sources.
Taricani told the judge he acted in accordance with his principles, and understood he had to accept punishment for disagreeing with the court's view of the law. "Your honor, I want you to know that I do not consider myself above the law," he said.
After the sentencing, WJAR praised its reporter for "his strong belief in preserving the relationship between a journalist and his source."
The international reporters' rights group Reporters Without Borders said the case showed that journalism is under pressure.
"The role of the press in providing checks and balances is under fire [at] this time, and the U.S. courts must understand that if the confidentiality of journalists' sources is not guaranteed, no one will go to them with sensitive information," the group said.
The FBI tape of a mayoral aide taking a $1,000 payoff was part of a corruption probe that ultimately sent former Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci and other city officials to federal prison.
Taricani broke no law by airing the footage, but attorneys, investigators and defendants were under court order not to release any tapes connected to the probe, and a special prosecutor had been appointed to find out who leaked it.
After a three-year investigation failed to turn up the source, Torres found Taricani in civil contempt in March and began fining him $1,000 a day to compel him to speak. Taricani refused, saying he had promised his source anonymity, and ran up $85,000 in fines, paid for by his NBC-affiliated station, before the judge turned up the pressure by charging him with criminal contempt.
The reporter called his Nov. 18 conviction an "assault on journalistic freedom."
Bevilacqua, the source of the tape, was the lawyer for a former city tax official who pleaded guilty in the corruption scandal. Bevilacqua told prosecutors that he never required the reporter to withhold his identity — something Taricani disputed.
Taricani said Bevilacqua insisted that his identity be kept confidential in numerous conversations.