It’s funny how events change what you’ve planned. I’ve been working on a closer look at how freelance photographer Josh Wolf landed in the Federal Penitentiary in Dublin. I’ve been arguing with prison officials for more than a week about taping a face-to-face interview with Wolf. Even though prison rules allow on-camera interviews, Warden Schelia Clark refused, citing “institution security concerns”. That didn’t sit well with me. I’ve produced reports from inside federal and state prisons and local jails across the country – even one of the nation’s only “super-maximum” prisons in Marion, Illinois, and California’s Pelican Bay. Finally, the prison administrator admitted that the Wolf case was just too hot now – that I could probably get access when it died down. I finally settled for yesterday’s telephone interview, which we posted in its entirety on our website when we heard Wolf was getting out on bail.
Now, to the meat of the story. A federal judge held Wolf in contempt and sent him to prison August 1st because he wouldn’t turn over outtakes of a protest in San Francisco last summer during the G-8 Summit in Scotland. At first blush, it would seem to be a local matter – protestors shattered a few windows, blocked streets, and injured a police officer who was trying to make an arrest. But, after Police Chief Heather Fong began hearing criticism from her own officers for letting the demonstration get out of control, the department called in the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Then, the US Attorney took the case to the Federal Grand Jury. Here’s the statute prosecutors cited:
“Whoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other personal or real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States, or any department or agency thereof, or any institution or organization receiving Federal financial assistance, shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years, fined under this title, or both.”
The Grand Jury launched its investigation based on the attempted arson of a squad car, number 1139. But, the SFPD Damage Report obtained by the I-Team (the police refused to provide it, even after we filed a Sunshine Ordinance request) shows no fire damage to the 2001 Ford Crown Victoria; it just had a broken tail light. Incident reports had no mention of flames or remnants from a Molotov cocktail. Officers only describe protestors setting off fireworks. Wolf’s attorneys ask whether a reasonable person would believe a firework could set a car on fire. They accuse federal prosecutors of inserting themselves into a local issue for the purpose of investigating the radical activist underground, including the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. A spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office denies it, and says that people would be upset if they didn’t aggressively pursue any crime that may fall under federal law.
But, here’s the point I wanted to explore – that I didn’t have time to discuss on the air today. The statute cited above discusses a vehicle from an organization that receives federal dollars, and the SFPD would qualify. But, the vehicle doesn’t have to have been purchased with federal money. The San Francisco Controller’s Office gave us the figures on federal grants to the police department during the past two years:
The Controller’s Office also said, “The federal funds are used primarily to pay for salaries, training, equipment, and materials and supplies.” And, here’s the clincher: “The Police Department indicates that they did not use any of these funds to purchase vehicles.” And, police officials tell me they bought squad car #1139 in 2001 from the city’s General Fund – no federal dollars. Wolf’s attorney, Dan Siegel, says that’s a pretty flimsy excuse for getting the feds involved in the case.
I have one other anecdote that shows what we go through to get the story. I called the administrator at Dublin Federal Penitentiary, Bill Kubitz, this morning at 7:00 to find out when Wolf would be released. He told me he had to check with the courts, and since the courts don’t open until 8:30am, it would be some time after that. Just fifteen minutes after I hung up from that conversation, I got a call from Wolf’s mother saying Josh frantically called her. The prison just told him he had to reach his attorney right away – he had to be out by 7:30am. Was Kubitz trying to keep us from getting a picture and interview? I called the station to send a photographer to the prison. I raced there myself – barely in time to see Josh Wolf emerging from prison after 31 days. Just a typical day in the news business.