- It's never a good thing for a news reporter to become part of the news. But that is now very much the case for the Albany Times Union's James Odato, whose articles on the franchise situation I've linked to regularly here. In a move that was said to be unprecedented in the two-decade history of the [New York State] Ethics Commission, that panel, as part of its investigation into the scandal regarding Spitzer's office's attempted smear of Joe Bruno (being referred to by some news outlets as the Choppergate Scandal), has issued a subpoena to the reporter and his records on the matter.
Several First Amendment groups said yesterday that a state-level commission issuing a subpoena to a reporter was basically unheard of.The Times-Union immediately shot back that they will not permit Odato to appear.
“What? It’s a state ethics commission?” asked Christine Tatum, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, when told yesterday of the subpoena. “I’m sitting here going, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ” [NY Times]
The interest in Odato pertains to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests he made regarding the use of state aircraft by seven state officials, including Senator Bruno. He originally asked Spitzer's now-suspended aide Darren Dopp for the information on June 27, and received it quickly enough to write his July 1 article on Bruno's use of state helicopters for trips that included political fund-raisers that started this whole mess. The fact that he was able to get the information, which included the detailed logs prepared by the State Police on Bruno, so quickly is seen as firm evidence that the governor's office was setting the paper and Bruno up.
But it's a second FOIL request that Odato made that has raised suspicions. It came more than a week after the article, on July 9th. Attorney General Cuomo's report noted that it was "odd" that Odato filed a second request, nine days after his story's publication, for information he already had received. [NY Daily News] Some observers, led by the right wing NY Post while it carries out its virulently anti-Spitzer agenda, contend that Odato made the second request in order to provide cover for the governor's office.
Who really initiated the Freedom of Information Law request that prompted the governor's office to release information on Bruno's use of state aircraft? Because it was only after the information on Bruno was reported that the paper filed a second request - this one specifically seeking information on the senator, which Odato had neglected to ask for in the first filing.However, the Columbia Journalism Review seeks to debunk any such suspicions.
Moreover, the State Police had begun collecting information on Bruno even before the initial FOIL request was made.
It's all mighty suspicious. [NY Post]
Odato...says there’s a far more benign explanation for the second request: he wanted to get updated documents through the end of June, since the first set had only covered flights through May. The second FOIL request backs this up—it clearly identifies itself as “a follow-up” to the June 27 request, clearly asks for the June records, and is clearly dated, both in the text and in the e-mail time stamp as being sent on July 10. [Columbia Journalism Review]And the article reprints Odato's email request, which specifically contradicts the Post's assertion, showing that it included officials other than Bruno. Still, questions remain, such as why the Times Union didn't sense it was being used when their request was filled so quickly and contained so much extra detailed information on Bruno that was not specifically requested. Even the NY Times noted rather cryptically: Many observers would be eager to hear testimony from Mr. Odato, who could likely shed light on some enduring questions surrounding the case. But if it's up to the Times-Union, that will not be happening.
“The legal arguments are strong on our side,” said Eve Burton, general counsel for the Hearst Corporation, which owns The Times Union. Ms. Burton said that if necessary, the newspaper would fight the subpoena in court.
Referring to Mr. Odato, she said, “We’ve told him that he’s not going to appear.” [NYT]