By Elaine Hargrove-Simon, Bulletin Editor
On May 2, 2002, investigators from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office shut down operations at a small newspaper for three hours while they searched files for an invoice for an advertisement that was placed three months earlier. Armed with a search warrant, which enabled them to search "all rooms, safes, locked boxes, desks," the investigators ordered everyone out of the offices of Metropolitan News Company while they searched for records that would reveal the name of the entity that placed the advertisement. The advertisement had given notice of intent to circulate petitions for a recall election in the suburb of South Gate.
Co-publishers Roger and Jo-Ann Grace had originally maintained that they would not reveal the name of the law firm that had placed the advertisement. When Roger Grace refused to cooperate with investigators, the newsroom and business offices were shut down. According to the Los Angeles Times, Jo-Ann Grace finally turned over the documents related to the advertisement when she learned that investigators already knew the name of the law firm. In a story posted on the Reporters Committee for the Press Web site, Roger Grace is quoted as saying, "Our reason for resistance was that we wanted to protect the privacy interest of the customer. If [the investigators] already knew the name of the customer, there was no privacy interest to protect."
The newsroom and reporters' desks were not searched.
Roger Grace has said that he might file a lawsuit claiming violation of his civil rights. An article appearing on the Web site for The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press speculated that the search may have violated California state law. The laws (Cal. Penal Code section 1524(g) (West 2002)and Cal. Evid. Code section 1070 (West 2002)) forbid search warrants for items described in the state's journalist's shield law. "Unpublished information" is defined in the statute as information that includes, but is not limited to, notes, outtakes, photographs or other data. But Jane Robison, press secretary for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley is reported as saying that "unpublished information" does not include a bill for an advertisement; therefore the search warrant was legal. She also said that a search warrant, which is more intrusive than a subpoena, had been issued because California law allows subpoenas only when a case has been filed. Although charges have been filed against one South Gate official, the investigation includes others against whom no charges had yet been filed.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Cooley had offered Roger Grace a chance to settle the matter over dinner before the search warrant had been issued. "But now I don't think he's the kind of man I would like to go to dinner with," Grace said.