Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala is deciding whether to file criminal charges against the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and reporter Dennis Roddy for their reporting on the divorce of rival newspaper publisher Richard Mellon Scaife
After Allegheny County Family Court Judge Alan Hertzberg ruled Sept. 26 that the P-G did not have to return documents it got off a public court Web site, Scaife attorney H. Yale Gutnick said his client was deciding whether to pursue civil or criminal remedies. Zappala's spokesman Mike Manko confirmed Sept. 28 that an investigation was requested, although it's not clear whether the request was made by Scaife himself or through his attorney.
"I can confirm that we have received an inquiry on that issue," Manko said. "Beyond that, all I can say is it's under review. I don't know where it's going to go or how long it's going to take, but it is under review."
Attorneys for Scaife did not return calls seeking comment by press time. However, P-G attorney Thomas McGough said he hasn't heard of the complaint to the DA, nor is he too worried about it.
"I'm not surprised that they contacted the DA's office, but it's not something that we're too concerned with," McGough said. "I think Judge Hertzberg made it clear that that argument [that the paper is guilty of theft] is silly."
McGough points to an analogy made by Scaife's lawyers that what Roddy did was the same as stealing something from a house whose front door had been left open. "I agree with Judge Hertzberg after he said it was more like leaving the front door of your house open and having someone see something that you didn't want them to see."
Ordinarily, divorce proceedings are open to the public, but Hertzberg sealed the case in 2006. But Roddy apparently accessed the documents due to an oversight in the Prothonotary's office, whose Web site left the documents accessible online for several days in August. Those documents became the basis of a Sept. 16 P-G story outlining all of the gory details of Scaife's ongoing divorce dispute with his wife, Margaret "Ritchie" Scaife.
Among Roddy's findings was the fact that the publisher was ordered to pay a whopping $725,000 a month in temporary spousal support. The documents also assert that Scaife has subsidized the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to the tune of more than $140 million over the past 15 years. Ritchie Scaife claims that the paper loses an estimated $20 to $30 million per year and is one of her husband's "hobbies" rather than a legitimate business.
At the Sept. 26 hearing, Scaife's attorneys argued that, by downloading and publishing the sealed records, the P-G committed the equivalent of theft. Scaife demanded that Roddy return all of the documents to the court.
A desire for secrecy may be the only thing Mr. and Mrs. Scaife still have in common. Ritchie Scaife's lawyer, William Pietragallo, told Hertzberg that his client feared a "wealthy person's exception" that would allow details of her divorce to be made public. (Although divorce records generally are public, judges sometimes seal the records of celebrity cases, to shield parties from increased scrutiny.)
He said she was also upset at numerous blog posts about her divorce, including one that wished they would "just kill each other."
"The Post-Gazette wants to turn this into a First Amendment issue, and this is anything but a First Amendment issue," Gutnick told Hertzberg. In fact, Gutnick initially sought to have the hearing take place in private. Prior to the hearing, Hertzberg's staff told City Paper that the hearing would be closed, and Gutnick argued in court that reporters from the Post-Gazette and City Paper should be tossed out. A reporter from the Tribune-Review did enter the hearing after Hertzberg had already decided to open it. The Trib had its own story the next day.
However, P-G lawyer McGough said the paper was "not a party in the case" and that seals did not apply to it. At the same time, he noted that the paper intended to report on any hearings that it was involved in. McGough said he had no idea the hearing was going to be sealed until a City Paper reporter informed him.
In the end, Hertzberg sided with the Post-Gazette on all issues: Not only did he agree to keep the hearing open, but he also quashed the subpoena against Roddy.
"I do believe," Hertzberg said, "that the First Amendment is very much at the heart of this dispute."