Shield law debate stretches to Victoria

By - The Associated Press
April 19, 2009 at 10 p.m.
Updated April 18, 2009 at 11:19 p.m.

Associated Press reporter Paul Weber visited Victoria recently to examine the "Law and Disorder" saga the Victoria Advocate has been covering since 2007. This is his account of how the newspaper's work relates to a journalists' shield law being debated by the Texas Legislature.

VICTORIA - A former sheriff accused of a sex crime, sweeping indictments at City Hall and the police chief charged with lying to a grand jury. A doozy of a drama in any city and plenty of fodder for the local media.

But at The Victoria Advocate, subpoenas may sideline three journalists when the highly anticipated first trial gets under way. District Attorney Steven Tyler has called editor Chris Cobler and two reporters as witnesses.

Tyler, a first-term prosecutor, says testimony from Advocate reporters is material to the case against Victoria police Chief Bruce Ure, who is charged with aggravated perjury. A central issue is whether Ure lied about who he talked to in an investigation of a former sheriff accused of sexually assaulting a teenager.

To the newspaper, the subpoenas smack of harassment and point to the need for a shield law for Texas journalists.

"We've published everything we know," Cobler said. "That's what's so frustrating about it. By virtue of him harassing us and subpoenaing us, he's raised this sort cloud of suspicion among some in the community."

Texas is one of just 14 states that affords journalists no legal protection from revealing sources or notes in court. Newspapers and media advocates say shield laws provide essential source protection and encourage whistleblowers to seek out reporters and expose corruption.

Two proposals have failed the last two sessions in the Legislature, including one killed in 2007 over a parliamentary technicality. But this year, the House has already overwhelmingly passed a shield law proposal, and a Senate committee unanimously approved the measure last week. It next faces a vote in the full Senate.

Introduced as the Free Flow of Information Act, the bill gives reporters qualified privilege - meaning journalists could not be forced to give up information or testify in court unless a judge deems it reasonable and necessary.

Laura Prather, an attorney for the newspaper who also drafted the compromise bill before the Legislature, said the proposed law would eliminate the use of subpoenas as tools to harass journalists.

But Tyler strongly denied the subpoenas are attempts to intimidate the newspaper or retaliation for bad press. He says he has no grudge against journalists, adding that he spends more time "listening to them and reading what they have to write than my own kin."

But Tyler says the Advocate's stories, on its own, aren't enough. He said he doesn't think asking a reporter to raise a hand in court and state that what is printed is true is "too much to expect" from a journalist.

"Whether they're embarrassed or whether they receive accolades is not my concern," Tyler said. "I'm not a newspaper man. I'm a prosecutor. I have a duty, and I mean to accomplish my duty."

Ure's trial was to begin Monday. But the judge recused himself from the case last week without giving a specific reason, adding another twist to a saga already rich with subplots. Ure's trial has yet to be rescheduled.

Ure was among four city officials indicted last May. All the charges except aggravated perjury were dropped.

"It's a war here," Victoria Mayor Will Armstrong said.

Armstrong proudly says that Victoria has been a historically stable city; only five city managers have served since 1957. But that stability collapsed when indictments in October 2007 accused city officials of interfering with the investigation of former Victoria County Sheriff Michael Ratcliff. At the time of the indictments, Ratcliff was serving as the prosecutor's chief of staff.

Ratcliff was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage boy while sheriff. Those charges were eventually thrown out in exchange for a plea of aggravated perjury, and Ratcliff received 10 years' probation.

But before that happened, Armstrong and former City Attorney Dave Smith approached the newspaper and shared concerns about the investigation into Ratcliff.

"I thought that was more or less the newspaper's desire, to be a watchdog for the community and involved with controversial issues that affected the community," Armstrong said.

Cobler said the subpoenas are hurting his reporters' relationship with sources.

"They have less confidence that we can protect them," he said.



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