A federal judge held a former USA Today reporter in contempt of court Friday and ordered her to pay up to $5,000 a day if she refuses to identify her sources for stories about a former Army scientist under scrutiny in the 2001 anthrax attacks.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said Toni Locy must pay fines out of her own pocket as long as she continues to defy his order that she cooperate in scientist Steven J. Hatfill's lawsuit against the government.
Hatfill accuses the Justice Department of violating his privacy by discussing the investigation with reporters.
Locy had asked that a contempt citation be delayed while she appeals to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The judge refused.
Starting at midnight Tuesday, Locy is ordered to pay fines of $500 a day for the first week, $1,000 a day for the second week and $5,000 thereafter until she appears before the judge on April 3.
"To maximize the potential that Ms. Locy will ultimately comply with the court's order ... Ms. Locy is required to personally bear the responsibility of paying the fine the court imposed," Walton wrote.
Locy "is precluded from accepting any monetary or other form of reimbursement," the judge added.
Locy, 48, is a former Associated Press reporter who wrote about Hatfill while working at USA Today.
"I'm terribly disappointed in the judge's ruling," said Locy, now a professor at West Virginia University's journalism school. "I had hoped he would reconsider this draconian sanction."
In his decision, the judge said that further delay of a case that is already over four years old "may very likely prejudice Dr. Hatfill, with the potential result being the erosion of his ability to effectively establish" his Privacy Act claims.
"When weighing ... Dr. Hatfill's need to identify the leakers before their memories are exhausted against Ms. Locy's desire to preserve her ability to pursue her appeal, her interest, at a minimum, is counterbalanced by Dr. Hatfill's," the judge added.
Explaining his rationale for making Locy pay the money out of her own funds, the judge pointed to statements Hatfill's lawyers made in court papers. Hatfill's legal team said that while Locy's reporting was conducted "within the scope of her employment for USA Today, her contempt was not. It began long after she left the employment of USA Today."
Five people were killed and 17 sickened when anthrax was mailed to Capitol Hill lawmakers and members of the news media just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called Hatfill, who worked at the Army's infectious diseases laboratory from 1997 to 1999, "a person of interest" in the investigation.
Three reporters cooperated
Walton ruled in August that five journalists must identify the government officials who discussed details about the case. Though reporters said testifying would chill the flow of information, Walton said that fear is outweighed by Hatfill's rights in his Privacy Act lawsuit.
Three reporters cooperated after their sources identified themselves to Hatfill's lawyers. Locy says she cannot remember whom she talked to about Hatfill specifically and is refusing to identify all the sources she spoke to about anthrax generally.
The judge is also considering whether to find former CBS reporter James Stewart in contempt.
Stewart says that his cooperation is no longer necessary since several law enforcement officials have already acknowledged talking to reporters in the case about information similar to what Stewart reported.
Nobody was charged with the anthrax attacks and Hatfill's lawyers say the Justice Department destroyed his good name by discussing details of the case with reporters. Walton has scheduled time for settlement negotiations that could head off a trial, but Hatfill's attorneys have said it appears unlikely they will settle.