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Editor’s note: James Sanders, a former police officer turned investigative reporter, co-wrote this report. Sanders is the author of “The Downing of TWA Flight 800″ and “Altered Evidence,” among other books.

As Attorney General John Ashcroft wrestles to gain control of the 120,000
employee-strong Justice Department, the legacy of former Attorney General
Janet Reno lives on. Nowhere is this more evident than in the continuation
of Reno’s assault on the First Amendment’s freedom of the press, a subject
about which Jim and Liz Sanders know more than they would like.

The subject shot into the headlines this week when Vanessa Leggett, a
freelance journalist and writing teacher at the University of Houston, was
imprisoned at the insistence of Justice Department lawyers. The 31-year-old journalist was imprisoned after a secret federal court hearing – from which the public and press was barred. The federal judge, whose name is also considered secret, jailed Leggett when she refused to turn over her journalist’s “work product.”

Leggett was developing articles and a book related to a Texas murder in
which the Justice Department, for unknown reasons, has taken an interest.
Justice moved in with little apparent regard for the United States
Constitution. Its employment of a secret court hearing, an anonymous judge,
contempt charges for refusing to turn over the “work product” (which
federal law prohibits the feds from seizing) reminded the Sanderses of their
own painful experience in the investigation of TWA 800 when they were both
indicted and convicted of conspiracy after refusing to turn over their
sources inside the investigation. They had hoped that this sort of pressure
would have come to an end with the change of administration, but it
apparently has not.

What has changed, however, is press interest. The arrest and conviction
of the Sanderses elicited scarcely a peep from the establishment media.
Leggett’s arrest, by contrast, has caught their attention. The reason?
They can now blame any such infringements on the Ashcroft Justice
Department.

There may very well be an infringement of the law. The federal Privacy
Protection Act of 1980 (42 U.S.C., section 2000aa) makes it illegal for the Justice Department to attempt to seize a journalist’s “work product” – that is, the materials the reporter has herself created. PPA gives any journalist harmed by this Act the right to sue the federal government without its permission, authorizing the injured journalist to collect actual
damages and punitive damages. The Act also permits the injured journalist to sue John Ashcroft and any identifiable justice Department personnel for violations of tort law and the Constitution.

How involved is John Ashcroft? Good question. The 1980 PPA mandates an entire chain of events that must occur before any Justice Department lawyer can stand before a federal judge and demand that a journalist be imprisoned to coerce the turnover of any documents. At the top of the chain is the attorney general. He must inspect what the
Justice Department has done to ensure that the rules, regulations and case
law have been honored. He, and he alone, had the authority to authorize the
incarceration of journalist Vanessa Leggett.

If Ashcroft were misled by his staff – many, if not most, of whom are
holdovers from the Clinton administration – the PPA demands that he
discipline those who have misled him. He can use internal disciplinary
procedures, terminate and/or criminally prosecute Justice Department
personnel who have deceived him.

If the rule of law is to prevail, John Ashcroft must investigate the steps
that have led to Leggett’s incarceration. Title 18, section 1001, makes
deception in this process a felony. Title 18, section 241, makes it a civil-rights felony violation for Justice Department personnel to impede a journalist’s investigation of wrongdoing (controlling case law is appropriately named “Screws”).

But long before all this plays out within the Justice Department and
federal judiciary, lawyers must come forward who are willing to represent
Vanessa Leggett on a contingency basis – did we neglect to mention the
PPA says the federal Treasury will pay the lawyers if Leggett prevails
in federal civil court? She has the right to sue the federal government
without its permission for attempting to seize her “work product.” The
civil case could be filed tomorrow morning if competent legal representation
came forward today.

The federal government, including Congress, would be put on notice that
this potential Justice Department violation of the PPA Act has significant
financial implications, which grow with each minute that the process continues.

The PPA Act does not prohibit the illegal incarceration of Vanessa
Leggett. PPA gives her an immediate means of attacking and punishing those
within the Justice Department for initiating that incarceration, if
improper, and continuing to punish illegal acts as they occur.

Her imprisonment will certainly become more bearable if competent legal
assistance comes forward and begins to counterattack the forces within the
Justice Department that continue the Reno legacy of constitutional
indifference.

Contact information for those who care enough to take action – mail this
article to:

Attorney General John Ashcroft

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Ave.

Washington, DC 20530-0001

Senator Orin Hatch (Senator Hatch voted for the PPA in 1980 and is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee)

Russell Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510-4402

Gregg Leslie

The Reporter’s Committee

1101 Wilson Blvd.

Suite 1910

Arlington, VA 22209


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