Wilkes-Barre publisher, 3 others charged after illegally taped phone call is printed

December 13, 1991|By New York Times News Service

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- The publisher, two top editors and a columnist from the Times Leader here were charged yesterday with publishing the contents of an illegally taped telephone conversation.

The columnist was also charged with violating a state law that requires both people in a conversation to consent to any taping.

Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that makes it illegal to tape a conversation without the permission of both parties. But the paper's publisher, Dale A. Duncan, said yesterday, "No law has been violated."

Pennsylvania law also prohibits publishing material gathered through such taping.

Press lawyers said that while anti-taping laws have been in effect for decades, very few criminal actions have been brought under them. The arrests of four people from a newspaper for publishing material, no matter how it is gathered, is also highly unusual, legal experts said.

According to court documents and articles published in the paper, both sides agree on these facts:

The columnist, Steve Corbett, was reporting on a murder investigation in 1989 when he telephoned Dr. Glen Wolsieffer, the victim's husband, whom the police considered a suspect. Mr. Corbett told Wolsieffer that he was writing about the conversation, but he did not say that he was taping it.

In a column based on the conversation, Mr. Corbett quoted Wolsieffer as speculating about who might have killed his wife. He said it could have been a former patient, possibly a drug addict. The case gripped this city of 50,000 people in northeastern Pennsylvania for years after Elizabeth Wolsieffer was strangled in her home in 1986.

Last year, Wolsieffer was convicted of third-degree murder. He is appealing and is working as a dentist in Virginia while free on bond.

In July, Mr. Corbett visited the prosecutor in the case, Anthony Sarcione, who was then working in the state attorney general's office in Harrisburg. While discussing the trial,the columnist disclosed that he had taped the telephone call.

An investigation followed, and in an attempt to fend off any legal action, the newspaper decided to publish the entire transcript on Aug. 1.

A note published with the transcript said, "We are publishing this now because it has become a public issue and to avoid any future battle between the rights of the press and the rights of the accused."

The other nine states that prohibit taping conversations without the permission of all parties are California, Florida, Illinois,

Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon and Washington. Federal law permits taping conversations as long as one party knows of the taping.

In addition to Mr. Corbett and Mr. Duncan, the managing editor, Cliff Schechtman, and the editor, Allison Walzer, were arrested yesterday. The newspaper is owned by Capital Cities/ABC. The charges, third-degree felonies, carry a maximum penalty of seven years in jail and a $15,000 fine.

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