Pa. DA: Newspaper's story killed prison probe

January 31, 2011 6:03:45 PM PST
A prosecutor on Monday criticized a newspaper's decision to run a story based on a sealed search warrant, saying its disclosure forced him to pull the plug on an investigation of prison corruption.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli said the probe of an alleged $10,000-per-month smuggling ring inside the county lockup was compromised by the front-page story in The Morning Call of Allentown, published Thursday over his concerns.

The story tipped off suspects and prompted confidential informants to stop cooperating, said Morganelli, adding that he had looked into whether he could charge the reporter and editors but concluded the paper had "an absolute First Amendment right" to publish.

"The Morning Call made an editorial decision that a front page headline and an 'exclusive' story was much more important than cleaning out corruption . at Northampton County Prison," Morganelli said. "The release of this information has essentially thwarted and terminated the investigation."

David Erdman, the newspaper's editor and vice president, said in a statement that Morganelli did not "strenuously object" to the story's publication, nor did he escalate his concerns beyond a reporter "as he has done in the past, including contacting me directly when he has had major concerns."

He also said the newspaper withheld sensitive details from publication.

"Upon weighing everything, including the DA's apparent level of concern, we decided publication was in the public's interest," he said.

The story, which ran on Thursday, reported that investigators were probing allegations that an inmate was running a lucrative contraband business involving drugs and tobacco. A December search of the inmate's cell turned up a mobile phone that investigators believed may have been smuggled in by a guard who "reportedly makes approximately $1,000 a week" from contraband sales, the paper reported, citing the affidavit.

Morganelli said a court clerk's mishandling of the affidavit - which had been sealed by Northampton County Judge William Morgan at prosecutors' request - allowed it to be viewed by one of the newspaper's reporters. Clerk of Courts Leigh Ann Fisher would not say Monday if that staffer has been disciplined.

Ford Risley, head of the journalism department at Penn State University, questioned the paper's decision to publish.

"I'm all for . covering the community as aggressively as you can, but I do question if a story like this served any real purpose and instead hurt what law enforcement officials were trying to do," he said. "It doesn't sound to me like this was a story that couldn't wait."