Turnabout: Melton Changes Story About Leak | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Turnabout: Melton Changes Story About Leak

Mayor Frank Melton on the Mobile Command Center with a JFP crew the night of April 9, 2006.

Mayor Frank Melton on the Mobile Command Center with a JFP crew the night of April 9, 2006. Photo by Kate Medley

When he was head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, Jackson Mayor Frank Melton leaked a memo containing accusations that would later be disproved about agency personnel to The Clarion-Ledger. Before he took office, he said under oath he did not leak the document. But after a judge ruled that the reporter could not keep her source confidential, Melton changed his story. Adam Lynch investigates.

In a chain of events reminiscent of New York Times reporter Judith Miller being jailed over an unnamed source in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, Clarion-Ledger Washington bureau reporter Ana Radelat last week filed notice of appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court to avoid revealing an unnamed source used in an April 18, 2003, article. The appeal came after Lauderdale County Circuit Judge Robert Bailey ordered the reporter to disclose her source in a pending civil case, holding that her First Amendment right to refuse to disclose confidential sources was "not absolute."

Also reminiscent of the Plame case, the protected source—Mayor Frank Melton—has chosen to relieve the reporter of her burden, instead revealing himself to the court, even though he previously denied under oath what he is now admitting.

Melton left the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics (MBN) after only 14 months. Despite his brief tenure as director, he remains embroiled in two related lawsuits that arose from his time at MBN. One suit, which has been pending for a year and a half in Meridian, is against Melton and MBN airplane pilot Warren Buchanan. The suit was sparked by an April 18, 2003, Clarion-Ledger story reporting that the MBN had asked the state to investigate the alleged theft of state property, including seized guns, the falsification of overtime records and the transfer of agency planes to curry favor with Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. Lott wasn't suspected of wrongdoing.

Named in the story for illegally transferring MBN property was retired airplane pilot Col. Robert Earl Pierce of the Mississippi National Guard; agency official Jimmy Saxton was named for promoting a civilian employee in exchange for helicopter lessons.

The story that eventually led to the Earl Pierce and Jimmy Saxton v. Frank Melton and Warren Buchanan suit, filed April 29, 2003, came from a memo leaked to the paper by someone within the MBN. The complaint, which represents one side of a legal argument, alleges that Melton leaked the memo. On March 30, 2005, Robert Earl Pierce v. The Clarion Ledger, a related lawsuit, was filed against the Clarion-Ledger for invasion of privacy and defamation. (The suit also names Gannett River States Publishing Corp., Gannett Company, Inc., Metro editor Grace Simmons and reporter Ana Radelat.) The two cases share attorneys and background facts.

Most of the assertions of misconduct in the original newspaper story have been disproved. A two-year investigation of alleged misconduct of 10 individuals was undertaken by the office of Mississippi State Auditor Phil Bryant, who found in March 2005 only minor allegations against two of the state employees targeted—one garnering a fine of $433, another requiring a payment of $343.85 to auditors. The state auditors determined the rest to be in compliance with state law.

According to depositions from then-MBN officials Shirlene Anderson and Roy Sandefer in the Earl Pierce and Jimmy Saxton v. Frank Melton and Warren Buchanan case, Melton became aware of alleged problem personnel in the MBN. Melton turned to MBN Assistant Deputy Director for Safe Schools/Safe Neighborhoods Shirlene Anderson—appointed this month by Melton as Jackson's new police chief—and requested her opinion on an investigator to handle the inquiry. Anderson suggests in her deposition that Melton was already considering MBN agent Roy Sandefer—now JPD assistant chief—as the investigator. Sandefer interviewed a confidential source later identified in Sandefer's deposition as Buchanan. According to Sandefer, he then put the resulting information into a memo, which he testified as having prepared on April 17, 2003—one day before the publication of the Clarion Ledger article.

Buchanan denied under oath that he made any of the accusations in the memo against Robert Earl Pierce. Now Pierce and Saxton are looking for compensation for damages. Pierce, in particular, is seeking $10 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages from Gannett River States Publishing Corp., which publishes The Clarion-Ledger.

"I'm a pilot by trade, and I doubt if I could ever get a job anywhere flying for any corporation or anybody else at all," said Pierce who had left MBN before the publication of the article. "When things like that are so public, I don't think I'll ever work in this area again."

Mel Coxwell, who represents Saxton in the case, said Saxton was not taking calls from the press.

Clarion-Ledger Executive Editor Ronnie Agnew could not be reached before press time.

Attorney and former Jackson Mayor Dale Danks, who is representing the current mayor in the case, says Melton described a less aggressive role for himself in the chain of events.

"As I understand it, as this actually came about, (Melton) got a call from a reporter that he thought was with the Washington Post, and it turned out to be a lady who worked for the Washington Bureau of The Clarion-Ledger. And this was shortly after he became director of MBN. She knew more about the case than he did at that point, because he wasn't familiar with what was going on, not having been there all that long. So he referred her to the assistant director, which was Shirlene Anderson, and she talked to (the reporter)," Danks said.

Anderson's deposition makes no claim of talking to the reporter; she denies discussing the contents of the memo with anyone prior to the deposition.

According to a June 8, 2005, opinion authored by Circuit Court Judge Robert Bailey, Sandefer reproduced four copies of the memo, which he then put in sealed envelopes. One went into the hands of Frank Melton about 10 a.m. on April 17, 2003. Another was given to Anderson. One he gave to staff attorney Kim Starks, who is no longer with the agency, and one to then MBN Deputy Director Joe Jackson, a former FBI agent in Jackson, who went to work as Melton's No. 2 at WLBT after resigning from the FBI in the 1993, amid a highly publicized public squabble with then-police Chief Jimmy Wilson over problems in the Juvenile Detention Center.

Each of the recipients of the memo denied under oath that they were the leak, according to Attorney Mike Farrell of Mitchell, McNutt & Sams, who represents Robert Earl Pierce in the suit against Melton and Buchanan.

"We know this wasn't a memo that was floating around out there," said Farrell. "We're talking about a relatively few hours in which somebody could have gotten it to the reporter (Radelat). We've gotten sworn statements from everybody who had the memo. Everybody denied under oath that they gave it to the reporter, so it was on that basis that the judge ordered the reporter to disclose the source because she is, as we call (it), the deponent of last resort."

Both suits have languished for more than a year, stalled by the inability to establish the identity of the leak. Both cases received two updates this month, however. The first was Radelat's recent filing of an appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The second update came as more of a surprise, said Farrell.

In legal pleading papers signed and dated April 19, 2005, Melton responded to interrogatories from the attorney for Earl Pierce, saying he had not given Radelat the memo. The statement "I did not give her the memo" appears three times in Melton's sworn responses to the questions. In a dramatic about-face, however, a second sworn and notarized legal statement, signed months later on July 7, 2005, has Melton saying that "I faxed a copy of the memorandum that I received from Sandifer (sic) to Ana Radelat." In the previous legal pleadings, Melton had specifically denied that he had given a copy of the memo to the reporter by hand delivery, e-mail, fax or other means of transmission of delivery.

"Friday we get (Melton's new statement) in the mail that Melton has decided basically to come clean," Farrell said. "I think he knows what the reporter's going to say, so he's changed his sworn testimony under oath. He now admits that he gave the memo to Radelet."

Danks says Melton's first response does not count as sworn testimony, dismissing any notions of perjury. "The first response was not sworn, and the first response was prepared by lawyers, and as I understand it, he signed what the lawyers put in front of him. Then too, Frank has been in the media a long time and has had the impression that there are certain privileges that are granted to you as a reporter's source," said Danks. "But he's not changed any sworn testimony whatsoever. I think he understands that the recent Supreme Court decision dealing with two reporters who were threatened to be jailed, certain privileges aren't what people in the media thought they were."

Former U.S. Attorney Brad Pigott said the language in the earlier legal statement is fairly cut and dry. "If that signature is there and the language (is there), and a true notary public has signed and witnessed the defendant's signature, then that's sworn," said Pigott. "The language in this document is not unusual for an official and effective notary public confirmation of a sworn signature. There's no reason legally to disparage the document as inauthentic or not sworn. For purposes of interrogatory answers that meets the usual protocol."

Leonard Van Slyke, who is representing Ana Radelat, is considering how to react to Melton's new statement. "We're still trying to determine where exactly we are with all that, since this is a new development," said Slyke.

Farrell said he'd contacted Slyke immediately after receiving the update. "I sent it (the statement) to Leonard Van Slyke, the lawyer for Radelat, and said 'look, I guess this is going to moot your appeal, since Melton is no longer a confidential source, because he's identified himself.Ҕ

John Sneed, who is representing The Clarion-Ledger, did not return phone calls.

The Meridian case against Melton and Buchanan has a November trial date.


PDFs of Relevant Documents:

April 17, 2003, memo from Roy Sandefer to Frank Melton that Melton now admits leaking to The Clarion-Ledger. The state auditor's office announced this spring that most of the allegations in the memo against MBN employees were not true.

Complaint Filed Against The Clarion-Ledger, Metro editor Grace Simmons and reporter Ana Radelat

Frank Melton's April 19, 2005, response to interrogatories, stating repeatedly that "I did not give her the memo," in response to questions about the leak of the memo to Ana Radelat

State Auditor Phil Bryant's findings in allegations about Robert Earl Pierce

Frank Melton's July 7, 2005, answers to Earl Pierce's third set of interrogatories, stating that he did, in fact, fax a copy of the report to Ana Radelat

Frank Melton's July 7, 2005, "amended" responses to Earl Pierce's second set of interrogatories, admitting that he both talked to Ana Radelat and faxed her a copy of the memo

TIMELINE

December 4, 2002—Gov. Ronnie Musgrove appoints former WLBT executive Frank Melton head of Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics

April 17, 2003—MBN employee Roy Sandefer distributes a memo, alleging complaints of theft of state property, the falsification of overtime records and the transfer of agency planes to curry political favor

April 17, 2003—Memo is leaked to The Clarion-Ledger Washington reporter Ana Radelat

April 18, 2003—Story on memo appears in Clarion-Ledger

April 29, 2003—Robert Earl Pierce and Jimmy Saxton file suit against Frank Melton and Warren Buchanan

January 2004—Melton dismissed from MBN post.

March 18, 2005—State Auditor dismisses complaint against Pierce, finding that he was in compliance with state law.

March 30 2005—Pierce files suit against The Clarion-Ledger

April 19, 2005—Melton responds to interrogatories from attorneys for Robert Earl Pierce and Jimmy Saxton, saying he had not given The Clarion-Ledger reporter the memo.

July 7, 2005—Melton changes his sworn statement, saying "I faxed a copy of the memorandum that I received from Sandifer (sic) to Ana Radelat."

Nov. 7, 2005—Estimated court date for Pierce, Saxton v. Melton, Buchanan

July 13, 2006—Estimated court date for Pierce v. The Clarion-Ledger

Previous Comments

ID
78800
Comment
Wow, what an article! Don't really know the ramifications surrounding the issues; but, how come the C-L didn't report on it during the election? Hopefully, it won't damage the city's image. We seemed to be going pretty good here the first few weeks. But, another question I have is about Dale Danks? At what point is he a conflict of interest in all the cases he is involved with? He represents Byram, but seems works with the City of Jackson now. He sues the city of Jackson when he can; but, we find that he represents the Mayor now. At what point does the Bar step in and find a conflict of interest - especially in the case of Byram since Melton is against it for the time being - but I digress. Iím not knocking Danks either; it just seems wrong for him to be so involved with all the lines blurred between the cases and the clients.
Author
tortoise
Date
2005-07-20T12:52:53-06:00
ID
78801
Comment
Looks like Melton decided to tell the truth before the truth told on him, so to speak. I believe the C-L knew exactly what it was doing by not bringing this up during this election because they wouldn't shut up about Johnson and Chief Moore. I doubt that he'll do any jail time, but if he does get some sort of punishment, it wouldn't be any worse than what what Martha Stewart got, which wasn't much.
Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2005-07-20T14:45:08-06:00
ID
78802
Comment
Well looks like the mayor is a liar. I wonder what else he is?
Author
thabian
Date
2005-07-20T15:13:35-06:00
ID
78803
Comment
It's mighty convenient that he waits until July 7, after he's sworn in as mayor. This doesn't bode well for what may be in store for the City for the next 4 years. Who wants 4 years of lawsuits and controversy? Not me!
Author
Steph
Date
2005-07-21T15:04:34-06:00
ID
78804
Comment
Jackson isn't the only city where the daily media are sitting on big stories involving public officials and themselves. Up in Cleveland, the alternative just scooped the hell out of the Plain Dealer because it wouldn't report important vital stories about the city administration. Perhaps someone needs to alert the Columbia Journalism Review about how many stories The Clarion-Ledger and "local" TV outlets have refused to report throughout the recent city elections (like, say, Mr. Bluntson's history at the Juvenile Detention Center; remember the TV cameras cutting off incumbent Bo Brown when he tried to talk about it?). One good test will be to see how quickly it takes Jackson media to report this story ó not only was an unsubstantiated document leaked the day it was written and a denial under oath later changed, but the document that could ruin people's careers was declared largely false by the state auditor. I'll see if I can get some of the original documents scanned and posted today.
Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-07-22T08:30:55-06:00
ID
78805
Comment
Here's a quote from Columbia Journalism Review: It's a hell of a story, and our kudos to Cleveland Scene and editor Pete Kotz for writing and printing it when others held back. Sometimes all it takes to move a cautious editor off the dime is another editor going first. One more reason to miss the good old days when multiple editors slugged it out toe-to-toe in markets all over America. That competitive zeal led to some excesses; but it also led to a lot of excellent journalism that might otherwise have gone undone.
Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-07-22T08:32:20-06:00
ID
78806
Comment
Perhaps someone needs to alert the Columbia Journalism Review.... Done.
Author
Steph
Date
2005-07-22T09:45:54-06:00
ID
78807
Comment
Note, all, that we have now linked PDFs to relevant documents referred to in this story, both in the story and in a list afterward.
Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-07-22T17:21:57-06:00
ID
78808
Comment
Thanks for the updates. The C-L can't touch your journalism standards! My mistake on mentioning Danks in context of all these cases, he appears no where in these documents that are posted. I read it wrong the first time. He is current council and that makes sense now. Always thought he was a good mayor (which is why I kept trying to get chicjuice to say why she didn't like him - see the Killen threads); and, actually he did try to work out a compromise with Bryam and Jackson until the third party stepped in and stopped it. The Mayor has still surrounded himself with some good people. So, as we seem to say, we will have to see how it goes. Anywho, so is the State getting sued also in conjunction with Gannett? I hope these guys get a lot of money from Gannett and the C-L. I wonder if you could buy the C-L for $25million???? ;-)
Author
tortoise
Date
2005-07-22T18:00:52-06:00
ID
78809
Comment
Thanks for the continuing updates, such is always impressive to see.
Author
Al
Date
2005-07-22T22:54:00-06:00
ID
78810
Comment
Here is an intriguing quote from David Hampton is his recent column supporting the right of reporters not to give up sources: The Clarion-Ledger does not use unnamed sources as a matter of practice and would only under the most extreme circumstances with strict guidelines that the source and reporter would know and agree to beforehand. The best policy is always on the record. But throughout the years, in rare cases, we and most papers have used them when the information would not have been available elsewhere to reveal wrongdoing or abuse of power by public officials. Hmmm, I wonder if this policy also applies to their Washington reporters?
Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-07-23T14:16:19-06:00
ID
78811
Comment
You know, L.W. brings up an interesting question about the relationship between the paper being co-defendants with the new mayor, of a fashion, against a lawsuit that they knew about throughout the city election season. And if she hasn't been dropped from the suit since the complaint, metro editor Grace Simmons -- who makes daily decisions about how the city is covered -- is named in the lawsuit against the Ledger. At what point does the Gannett Corp. take a hard look at Jackson and get an outside ombudsman in here? Or, at least a metro editor who doesn't have connections to this lawsuit or to Mr. Melton? I'm not saying Ms. Simmons has done anything wrong, but how can the public trust what they report about the mayor under the circumstances and while this lawsuit is going on? They have a serious "perception" issue of their own here, I'd say.
Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-07-23T14:35:27-06:00
ID
78812
Comment
I agree about getting someone from the outside. I would say that impartiality would be a major challenge for Simmons at this point, along with anyone else at the C-L who regularly practice the CYB (cover your butt) method.
Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2005-07-23T17:42:40-06:00
ID
78813
Comment
Off topic, sorry. L.W., you wanted to know what happened to the woman on the courthouse steps (in her bed). I went to look for something, and being old and absent minded, I got distracted. When I finally saw the story about her continued protest from there, I couldn't find the thread it went with. You probably already saw it, but if not: Woman protests cuts from bed
Author
C.W.
Date
2005-07-23T19:54:42-06:00
ID
78814
Comment
Thanks, C.W. I started a new thread here.
Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2005-07-23T20:08:06-06:00

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