Judicial Watch subpoenas Salon reporters

A conservative legal group has subpoenaed Salon reporters and seeks notes and documents related to Clinton officials and the press.


Jonathan Broder
May 8, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

WASHINGTON -- Judicial Watch, a conservative Washington, D.C., legal group, has subpoenaed Salon's Washington bureau chief and one of the online magazine's contributing writers in connection with a suit against the White House and the FBI stemming from the "Filegate" affair.

Judicial Watch is headed by Larry Klayman, a conservative attorney and television commentator on the Clinton scandals. His group represents several former Reagan and Bush administration officials who have complained their privacy was violated in 1993 when the FBI turned over their files to the White House at the request of two Clinton administration officials.

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Named as defendants in the suit are first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the FBI, former White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum and two other White House officials. The plaintiffs are demanding a total of $540 million in damages.

Subpoenas in connection with the civil suit were served Wednesday on this reporter, Salon's Washington bureau chief, and investigative reporter Murray Waas, who writes frequently for Salon. The two reporters were subpoenaed to appear for questioning at a deposition at Judicial Watch's Washington office on June 3 and June 10.

Salon's reporters were also ordered to produce "any and all records, correspondence, notes, communications," which the subpoena defined as including "telephone conversations, facsimiles, letters, electronic mail, telegrams, telexes, tapes," as well as "calendars, desk calendars, appointment books, journals, logs or diaries" relating to any contacts with dozens of named government officials, members of Congress, journalists and media organizations.

In addition, the subpoenas command this reporter and Waas to produce similar documents "which refer or relate in any way to" a lengthy list of people connected to the Whitewater, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky affairs, including President Clinton, independent counsel Kenneth Starr, Rep. Dan Burton, Linda Tripp, Richard Mellon Scaife and David Hale.

Guylin Cummins, a First Amendment specialist with Gray, Carey, Ware and Freidenrich, which is representing Salon, said the law firm would seek to have Klayman's subpoenas quashed, citing First Amendment safeguards for journalists, as well as local Washington, D.C., shield laws that protect journalists from being forced to disclose their sources.

"This sort of burdensome subpoena could cast a chilling effect on the press," said Cummins. "Journalists have been given strong state and federal constitutional protections, because they need those protections in order to break critically important stories that might otherwise not see the light of day."

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Klayman did not return calls for this article.

Last week, Klayman, an international trade lawyer, served an almost identical subpoena to New Yorker correspondent Jane Mayer. Last month, Mayer reported in the New Yorker that Linda Tripp, the Pentagon official who secretly recorded Lewinsky's account of her alleged sexual affair with President Clinton and then told Starr about it, had been arrested for theft as a teenager but had denied ever being arrested on her Pentagon security form in 1987. Soon after the story broke, Klayman deposed a Pentagon employee and publicly claimed that the employee had confessed under oath that he had released Tripp's personal file under orders from his boss -- an allegation that the Pentagon denies.

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Floyd Abrams, a noted First Amendment lawyer who is representing Mayer and the New Yorker in their bid to have the subpoena quashed, said it appeared that Klayman, in issuing a subpoena to Mayer, was hoping to mount a "pattern" argument in his Filegate civil suit against the White House and the FBI.

"The argument that Mr. Klayman is making is that the Defense Department should not have provided Jane Mayer with the information about the form that Linda Tripp filled out for the Defense Department," Abrams told Salon. "Their argument is something like: The sort of people who would misuse government documents so as to provide the information to Jane Mayer are the same sort of folks who would misuse government documents as in Filegate. As far as I know, they're not suggesting that Jane Mayer knows anything about Filegate, which she doesn't."

Salon editor David Talbot expressed puzzlement about the subpoenas issued to this reporter and Waas: "Neither of them has done any reporting on Filegate for Salon. In fact, Salon has only carried one piece on the subject, an interview with author Ronald Kessler -- who was very critical of the White House -- the day after Craig Livingstone (the former head of the White House personnel security office) resigned. We have to wonder what Mr. Klayman's real motives are."

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Cummins, Salon's counsel, added that the courts recognize that journalists need protection against privately imposed as well as publicly imposed obstacles to information gathering. "If private litigants could use reporters as an investigative arm, they'd be used in every case," said Cummins. "That would impose a substantial burden on news gathering and the free flow of information."

The Filegate suit is just one of 14 lawsuits that Klayman and Judicial Watch say the organization has filed "to expose government corruption in the Clinton administration alone." Granted broad latitude in the legal discovery process by District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, Klayman has used his subpoena power to question dozens of officials, including former and current Clinton aides. According to the current Newsweek, Klayman asked George Stephanopoulos if he had ever witnessed Clinton and his wife "scream at each other" and he asked James Carville if he had called Klayman a "twerp."

Legal observers say that many of Klayman's depositions appear to be fishing expeditions, but occasionally his efforts have created a stir. Using a Freedom of Information request that was upheld by Judge Lamberth in a lawsuit, Klayman obtained government documents in 1995 on which he based allegations that late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown allocated seats on his overseas trade missions to Democratic Party loyalists and major campaign donors. The Clinton administration has denied the charge.

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In late 1996, only days after news accounts raised questions about the activities of John Huang, a former Commerce Department official and Democratic Party fund-raiser, Klayman, using his subpoena power from the Brown case, brought in Huang for questioning. Huang's deposition produced no revelations, but the event placed Klayman in the national media spotlight.

Klayman's legal activities have drawn fire from jurists. According to the Washington Post, Klayman was cited in a 1989 case for filing a "frivolous" motion and ordered to pay his opponent's legal fees. The sanctions were later dropped after a settlement was reached.

In a 1992 case, the Washington Post reported, a federal judge in California ordered Klayman to pay some of his opponent's legal fees and took the unusual step of permanently banning Klayman from his courtroom. The Post quoted Klayman, who is Jewish, as saying the judge was anti-Semitic. But the paper also noted that an appeals court struck down Klayman's appeal, ruling he had "taken considerable liberties with the record and mischaracterized statements therein."

The Post also reported that in 1996, a federal judge in New York fined Klayman $25,000 "for making unsubstantiated claims." The sanction was overturned on appeal, but according to the Post, the court severely criticized Klayman for "inaccurate characterizations for the record and comments that we consider entirely inappropriate."

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Klayman's assertions that Commerce Department officials destroyed documents after Commerce Secretary Brown's death in 1996 and that Brown's family removed important official papers from Brown's office have also been questioned. According to the Post, the destroyed documents were copies of Brown's personal financial records, the originals of which are held by his widow. After reviewing the documents that were taken by Brown's family, Judge Lamberth ruled them irrelevant and returned them to the family, the Post reported.

Klayman, a regular guest on television news and talk shows like CNN's "Crossfire" and MSNBC's "Internight," also propounds the theory that Brown, who died in a plane crash in Bosnia in April 1996, may have been murdered because of his alleged knowledge of Clinton campaign finance scandals.


Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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