Ten journalists battle efforts to make them testify in a San Bernardino county corruption case

Ten Southern California journalists are fighting an effort by prosecutors to compel them to testify in the San Bernardino County corruption trials of a developer, a former supervisor and other former county officials.

Prosecutors say they want the reporters to testify about 56 statements contained in numerous articles that were published starting in 2005, as the corruption scandal unfolded. 

Attorneys representing the journalists say the government has overreached and are asking a judge to reject the subpoenas or to strictly limit the questioning of the reporters to certain published statements.

In court filings, the attorneys called the effort to subpoena such a large number of journalists “extraordinary” and said it “stands to weaken press freedoms by converting the resources of the press into an arm of state government.”

The California Shield Law, a provision of the state constitution, provides legal protections for journalists who seek to keep from disclosing sources and unpublished information that is obtained while gathering news. 

Prosecutors have said the information they are seeking does not fall under the protections of the law.

Subpoenas were issued to Southern California News Group Executive Editor Frank Pine, San Bernardino Sun reporter Joe Nelson and Riverside Press-Enterprise reporters Imran Ghori and Mark Muckenfuss. Muckenfuss was later released from the subpoena, said attorney Duffy Carolan, who represents the journalists.

In addition, subpoenas were also issued to former Press-Enterprise reporters Cassie MacDuff, Sharon McNary and Jim Miller, former Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reporter Mason Stockstill and former Sun reporters Jeff Horwitz and Guy McCarthy.  

Another former Press-Enterprise reporter who now works in Tennessee was served Thursday with a notice to appear in court, Carolan said. 

Southern California News Group includes those three publications as well as the Los Angeles Daily News, the Orange County Register and other newspapers. 

Prosecutors in San Bernardino have sought the journalists’ testimony to bolster their case in the public corruption trials of developer Jeff Burum, former Supervisor Paul Biane and former county officials James Erwin and Mark Kirk, which got underway this month. The case is being jointly prosecuted by county prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office.

The four were indicted in 2011 on multiple charges stemming from a land dispute between the county and Rancho Cucamonga-based investor group Colonies Partners LP.

Prosecutors have alleged that they participated in a bribery scheme that was concocted to settle the matter in favor of the company. In 2006, county supervisors agreed to a $102-million settlement with Colonies, over the objection of county legal staff. 

In court filings, prosecutors have said they want to ask the journalists whether the defendants made statements that were attributed to them in their articles. 

Those statements appear in stories that detail the run up to the settlement and its aftermath over a six-year period.  

They include comments by the defendants about political contributions, the propriety of accepting a Rolex watch, the reasonableness of the settlement, and support for a local ballot measure, among others.

In several of the statements, many of which are paraphrased, it’s unclear whether the information came from a one-on-one interview with the defendant or through some other source.

Attorneys for the reporters said establishing the foundation for many of the statements would require disclosure of sources and unpublished information, which is protected under the Shield Law.

In addition, Carolan said, prosecutors are seeking some information that could be obtained through other means, since some of the statements were made by the defendants “in press releases or public settings, where there were other people present who could verify what was said.”

“To me it shows the overreach that’s happening here,” she said. 

In a statement, Pine, the executive editor, said he is worried prosecutors will seek to go beyond asking the journalists to authenticate published stories.

“We are concerned that their questioning will go further and could infringe upon the legal protections that safeguard our sources and the process by which we develop our news coverage,” he said. “The Shield Law protections journalists enjoy are critical to carrying out our Fourth Estate responsibility to ensure government is accountable to the people.”

Representatives for the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office and the attorney general’s office declined to comment.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Tuesday in San Bernardino County Superior Court. 

In December, former L.A. Times reporter Robert Faturechi was called to testify against his will in the federal trial of former L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca, though the judge in that case imposed strict limits on Faturechi’s testimony. 

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

For more Inland Empire news follow me @palomaesquivel

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