S.C. station gives up subpoena fight

Monday, April 19, 1999

(Editor's note: After being compelled to testify, Jim Matthews revealed Jack Duncan as Heather Hoopes' source on May 18. Duncan had testified before a grand jury that he didn't know how Hoopes got the tape. Duncan was charged with perjury and later pleaded guilty. On Sept. 20, a federal judge sentenced him to four months in prison and two years of probation after his release.)

A Columbia, S.C., television station trying to protect the identity of a source who leaked a videotaped conversation between a murder suspect and his attorney has decided to drop its fight after a federal appeals court refused last week to dismiss a subpoena.

Federal prosecutors are trying to find out who gave reporter Heather Hoopes of WIS/Channel 10 a videotape of a 1995 conversation between murder suspect B.J. Quattlebaum and his lawyer, Jack Duncan. Last February, the Justice Department ordered Jim Matthews, a federal drug enforcement agent who is married to Hoopes, to testify before the grand jury.

Hoopes and the station had refused to reveal the source and challenged a subpoena from federal prosecutors. But on April 15, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to grant the station's request to dismiss the subpoena.

“We've lost, I'm afraid,” said Randy Covington, the station's news director. “It would be nice for (Attorney General) Janet Reno to call off the dogs, so to speak. But we, realistically, don't expect that to happen.”

Covington said that station officials made the decision partly because Matthews has said he would, as part of his duties as a federal agent, reveal the source if called before the grand jury. Covington said the station's effort to protect the source would then be moot.

Covington said he was “perplexed that the Justice Department has made this into such a big issue. That source did a good deed. He was not someone who should be hassled by the Justice Department.”

After Hoopes obtained the recording in 1997, a state circuit court judge issued a restraining order directing the station not to broadcast the conversation. The station broadcast part of the video portion of the tape but not the audio.

Quattlebaum was later convicted and sent to death row, even though the tape was not allowed as evidence at the trial.

As for revealing the source of the tape, Covington blamed the unsuccessful court battle on the unusual situation of a reporter being married to a federal agent.

“From the television station's perspective, we didn't roll over and accept this,” Covington said. “We think we established that we fight to protect our sources. We felt we were not only morally and ethically right but legally right. But these unusual circumstances let (the prosecutors) get to the back door and come in.”