Utah's corrections chief did not break the law when he taped conversations between an inmate and a journalist, but he violated prison policy by sending a transcript of that conversation to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom Wednesday cleared O. Lane McCotter of any criminal wrongdoing in the controversial incident that drew fire from journalists and civil rights groups."Taping the conversation was completely legal. But the minute Mr. McCotter disseminated transcripts of the conversation, he violated his own policy," Yocom said.
McCotter could not be reached for comment Thursday morning.
Former Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam asked Yocom in November to investigate Mc-Cot-ter's conduct and decide if he had broken the law after the American Civil Liberties Union asked Van Dam for a formal investigation.
"I suppose concluding that Mr. McCotter violated prison policy went beyond what we were asked to do, but what he did was such an obvious misuse of information," Yocom said Thursday. The report said McCotter's use of the transcripts for personal reasons "is clearly a violation of the Utah Department of Corrections policy."
All calls to and from the Utah State Prison are taped, the report says.
In October, a criminal investigator with the Utah Department of Corrections used a computer to identify all calls made from the prison to the Tribune in the previous months.
The investigator began listening to the tapes of those calls. "His stated purpose was to learn of the prisoners' attitudes and any allegations of staff or inmate wrongdoing," the report says.
One of the calls he listened to was made to Salt Lake Tribune reporter Chris Smart on Sept. 19. The investigator realized the call was about alleged destruction of state property of prison staff. He made a copy of the call and gave it to his supervisor who, in turn, gave it to McCotter.
McCotter ordered an investigation of the incident and concluded that the allegations were false, according to the report.
McCotter then wrote the editor of the Tribune and included excerpts from the September conversation and six other phone conversations dating back to October 1991.
McCotter's "stated purpose" was to "demonstrate his concerns regarding the reporter's motives, bias and professional objectivty toward him personally as well as his professional staff. He also expressed concern that a story, if not factually presented, could be timed to coincide with the November elections and have a negative impact on his future with Corrections. His disclosure of excerpts from phone recordings between the reporter . . . were apparently selected to discredit the reporter with his editor."
Some conversations McCotter used took place before McCotter became director, the report says.
McCotter's method worked. Smart resigned from the Tribune in November after his editors confronted him with the transcripts and told him they put the paper in a bad light.
The report explains why McCotter's use of the transcripts is not illegal. Signs near prison telephones warn inmates that their telephone calls are recorded and monitored and that use of the phones constitutes consent to the recording.