CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A West Virginia journalist who was arrested after repeatedly questioning U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price broke no law and isn't being charged, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
A joint press release from the independent Public News Service and the Kanawha County prosecutor's office said a review cleared Daniel Ralph Heyman (HIGH-min) of any lawbreaking.
"The State has determined, after a careful review of the facts, that Mr. Heyman's conduct, while it may have been aggressive journalism, was not unlawful and did not violate the law," the joint statement said.
The Charleston-based reporter for Public News Service was initially charged with willful disruption of governmental processes at the state Capitol in Charleston during Price's May 9 visit. Heyman had wanted to ask Price whether domestic violence is a pre-existing condition under the Republican health care proposal.
A criminal complaint by Capitol police said Heyman caused a disturbance with his persistent questions and "was aggressively breaching" Secret Service agents.
Heyman said he did nothing wrong.
"I'm very relieved," Heyman said in the statement. "Facing six months of jail time for asking a question as a journalist was pretty troubling.
"I don't want my arrest to have a chilling effect on other reporters because we all need to keep asking the tough questions of elected officials."
Heyman had wanted to ask Price whether domestic violence is a pre-existing condition under the Republican health care proposal. Heyman got no response, so he tried again. Heyman said he used his cellphone to record audio. He said he had to reach over the shoulders of some of Price's staffers to get the device closer to him.
Heyman was released on $5,000 bail following his arrest. One condition of his bail required him to stay away from the Capitol, which is part of his coverage territory.
Public News Service CEO Lark Corbeil had called Heyman's arrest "an overreach."
"The First Amendment was tested, and, thankfully, our system and democratic values withstood the challenge," Corbeil said. "Our leaders do not get to choose which freedoms to support; anyone who encourages arresting or assaulting journalists is assaulting our Constitution."
Heyman, a journalist for three decades and a Public News Service employee since 2009, said he was wearing a press badge and his questions were directed only at Price, not at White House aide Kellyanne Conway, who had accompanied Price to learn about efforts to fight opioid addiction in a state that has the nation's highest overdose death rate.
Price and Conway later took reporters' questions at a scheduled news conference. But Heyman had decided to find Price beforehand in a hallway.
As Heyman asked questions, police officers "grabbed him by the scruff of the neck" and led him away, said witness Kristen O'Sullivan, who was among a small group in the hallway hoping to talk to Price about the health care overhaul.
Heyman's attorney, Tim DiPiero, said on a conference call Wednesday that Heyman's cellphone audio was helpful in getting the charges dismissed.
"Dan really saved himself by having that phone on because the truth came out," DiPiero said. "They asked him one time to stay away from Kellyanne Conway," whom Heyman didn't know was there. Heyman immediately obeyed and tried to reach Price.
"There was no other command or warning or anything that occurs between then and about 30 or 40 seconds later when he's arrested," DiPiero said.
Jamie Lynn Crofts, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union's West Virginia chapter, said the dropping of the charge "was a win for the First Amendment and all of us who rely on it."
According to its website, Boulder, Colorado-based Public News Service manages independent news services in 36 states, reporting on social, community and environmental issues for print and radio customers.