State News

Senate subpoenas UNC-TV over planned program

Posted July 1, 2010 12:11 p.m. EDT
Updated July 1, 2010 6:55 p.m. EDT

— State lawmakers have subpoenaed public television workers to provide them with material from a not-yet-aired series of reports about Alcoa Inc.'s activities along the Yadkin River, calling the move comparable to a records request to any public agency.

A media law attorney said, however, that it could set a worrisome precedent by using legislative force to compel a news organization to disclose sources and footage.

A Senate judiciary committee took the unusual step to demand data and records from a correspondent and the general manager at University of North Carolina Television to obtain all footage about Alcoa's activities in Stanly County.

The subpoena and separate requests for information from a public agency demands that UNC-TV general manager Tom Howe and senior legislative correspondent Eszter Vajda attend the committee's meeting Tuesday and provide footage related to a report called "The Alcoa Story."

UNC-TV spokesman Steve Volstad said the subpoena covers information about licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for hydroelectric power plants that Alcoa operates on the Yadkin River.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, a top critic of Alcoa's use of the river, said Thursday that lawmakers need the information as quickly as possible so something can be done about the dams before the legislature adjourns next week.

"We just want to get the facts out," Hartsell said. "When time and a sense of crisis develops, you pay more attention, and this is the time."

Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks, said he was interviewed for the program. He argues Alcoa lobbyists have been misinforming lawmakers about the extent of pollution in Badin Lake from the company's aluminum operations.

The company has "not been open and honest about the contamination," he said.

Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said the company officials "have no issue with anyone reporting the facts about Alcoa's long history in North Carolina" in part "because we are proud of our record in North Carolina."

Hartsell has pushed legislation that would create a public trust responsible for managing the Yadkin River and its dams. The House rejected the trust idea last year, but another Senate committee revived the idea late Thursday by inserting the provision into an economic incentives bill.

Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration is fighting Alcoa's effort to renew a 1958 federal license to operate the dams, which powered an aluminum plant that once employed hundreds. The plant is closed, but Alcoa receives millions of dollars selling the electricity.

Legislative committees' subpoena power is rarely used except for ethics investigations, such as the one that led the House to remove state Rep. Thomas Wright, D-New Hanover, in 2008.

Several lawmakers and legislative observers said they couldn't recall a subpoena ever being issued to a North Carolina public broadcasting station.

State law requires public agencies to turn over information sought by any legislative committee. Committees also can issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to attend a meeting.

"We were somewhat surprised by (the subpoena), especially to receive it before any of the material had been broadcast," Volstad said. "It could definitely have an effect on our credibility as an organization that gathers and disseminates information."

An attorney who represents UNC-TV couldn't be reached Thursday for comment.

Media law attorney John Bussian, who represents the North Carolina Press Association, said he's worried about the precedent it would set by legislators using the subpoena power to demand information from a media outlet like UNC-TV for a production that hasn't yet run, even though it's a public agency.

"UNC-TV does not lose its protection against being forced by the government to disclose its unpublished sources and footage provided to broadcasters as a public entity," Bussian said.

He said a 1999 state law should shield UNC-TV from the subpoena.

"If you're a news organization and you get subpoenaed by a legislative, tribunal, agency or committee, (the law says) that you don't have to disclose what you haven't yet put on the air," he said.

Hartsell said that while the demand may raise First Amendment questions, he likens the paperwork to a public records request for the footage that he expects to be eye-opening to lawmakers.

"We're simply trying to get information that the public needs," he said.

When asked if he would fight any effort by UNC-TV to invoke the shield law, he sighed and said, "I just don't know."