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RJ moves to protect information in slain reporter’s seized devices

Updated October 18, 2022 - 10:18 am

The Las Vegas Review-Journal has demanded that authorities be prevented from reviewing the electronic devices and journalistic materials of slain reporter Jeff German as part of the prosecution and defense of his accused killer, according to a letter sent Thursday to attorneys and law enforcement officials.

“The Review-Journal appreciates the efforts of law enforcement to investigate the murder of Mr. German, and of all those seeking to ensure that justice is done for this horrific crime,” the letter states. “However, the newspaper has serious and urgent concerns about the protection of confidential sources and other unpublished journalistic work product contained in Mr. German’s seized devices.”

The Metropolitan Police Department gathered German’s personal cellphone, four computers and an external hard drive while investigating his killing earlier this month. In the letter, sent to police attorneys, public defenders and prosecutors, the Review-Journal argued that state and federal law prohibits the seizure and disclosure of a reporter’s information.

The newspaper is demanding that government officials not be allowed to examine contacts, text messages, communications and work product on German’s seized devices and that German’s documents and records, as well as records relating to the seizure of his devices, be preserved.

“The stakes for a free and independent press in Nevada could not be higher,” said Ashley Kissinger, of the law firm Ballard Spahr, who is representing the Review-Journal in the matter. “Officials in law enforcement want to review information in these devices that likely would reveal the newspaper’s confidential sources at those very agencies. That happens in other countries, but not in the United States. This is precisely why we have press shield laws prohibiting this.”

District Attorney Steve Wolfson, police attorneys and Telles’ public defender Edward Kane did not immediately reply to requests for comment on Thursday afternoon.

Negotiations at impasse

Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles has been charged with murder in connection with the stabbing death, which occurred Sept. 2 outside German’s home. Officials have accused Telles of killing German in an attack that may have been motivated by German’s investigative reporting on the public administrator’s office. German’s reporting included allegations of bullying and favoritism by Telles as well as an alleged inappropriate relationship between Telles and a staffer.

Following the reporting, Telles, who had overseen the office since early 2019, lost re-election in June’s primary. He is currently jailed without bail.

Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said the newspaper and authorities have worked cordially and in good faith since German’s killing to resolve concerns about German’s phone and computers and the extremely sensitive information they contain. But negotiations have reached an impasse, Cook said.

The Review-Journal does not want to impede Telles’ criminal case, but it intends to go to court to protect the identities of German’s sources, and to prevent the disclosure of unpublished information to law enforcement, Cook said.

“Southern Nevada law enforcement agencies cannot be allowed to gain access to the names of Jeff German’s confidential sources and his communications with them,” Cook said. “Setting aside the state’s press shield law as part of the investigation into his murder would damage the public trust that ensures important stories are told.”

Federal, state laws protect press

The federal Privacy Protection Act prohibits the search and seizure of journalists’ work product materials, according to the Review-Journal’s letter. Nevada’s shield law, which provides the broadest protection to the press in the U.S., also prevents the press from being required to disclose published or unpublished information in legal proceedings or investigations.

Lisa Zycherman, the deputy legal director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that if attorneys and law enforcement are able to access German’s records, it could set a damaging precedent for other journalists.

Sources who learn that newsgathering information can be seized by government agencies may think twice about talking to reporters “about issues that the public urgently has an interest in knowing,” Zycherman said.

“We fully support any effort to seek the return of improperly seized newsgathering materials in this case to the Review-Journal,” Zycherman said.

Telles’ public defenders, who were appointed during a court hearing on Tuesday, and the district attorney’s office are seeking a court order permitting attorneys and law enforcement to review German’s devices and records, according to the letter sent by the Review-Journal.

Telles was arrested Sept. 7, a day after Review-Journal reporters spotted a vehicle outside Telles’ home that fit the description of the suspect vehicle.

DNA found under German’s fingernails matched Telles’ DNA, police have said. Police who searched Telles’ home also found bloody shoes and pieces of a straw hat resembling one worn by the suspect in video surveillance footage, according to Telles’ arrest report.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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