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FWEE!: Supreme Court news
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In the “Why We Need an Anonymous Whistleblower Group” department, I
quote the last few paragraphs of a story in today’s paper (“Justices to
Rule on ‘Pretty Woman’ Parody,” but that’s not what this is about...)
The Washington Post, page A4, Thursday, 30 March 1993, reproduced
Separately yesterday, the justices refused to hear an appeal by two
former defense contractors who were convicted in 1991 of illegally
obtaining Pentagon information in the fraud scandal known as
“Operation Ill Wind.”
Thomas D. McAusland and Christopher M. Pafort, former executives at
Litton Data Systems, which was seeking Navy contracts, were
prosecuted under federal statutes that bar theft of government
property. In their appeal, they argued that government information
is not “property” and that no statute or published regulation
actually barred dissemination of the information.
Their lawyers said an appeals court ruling in the case, _McAusland v.
U.S._, could make any leak of government information, even to the
press, the basis for criminal liability.
[The defendants are apparently typical sleazy contractors who managed to
get some inside information on a contract they were pursuing. Obtaining
such information was made a crime _after_ they got the information, so
the government charged them with the “theft of government property”
And, from an editorial in the Post (“. . . Custom and Crime”), page A20:
It is not necessary to make a judgment on the defendants’ conduct to
be appalled by the use of the theft statute to prosecute them. There
should be a presumption that government information belongs to the
people unless specifically protected by law, as national security
data have been for some time and as contracting information now is.
The Washington Post joined other media organizations in filing a
brief in this case to make exactly that point. The high court’s
failure to review this case leaves in place a ruling that would make
it possible to prosecute journalists who receive tips from government
sources about corruption or public advocacy groups that listen to
whistleblowers’ charges about waste and inefficiency. It is not
enough to say, as the government does, that this probably won’t
happen. The court should have reversed these convictions to make
clear that it cannot happen.
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Joe Thomas <[email protected]>
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