NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A federal judge kept tight limits on defense attorneys Wednesday as they questioned two New Orleans journalists about a story that forecast a high-profile 2012 racketeering indictment, blocking questions that could have forced the two to divulge confidential sources or risk sanctions.
At issue was an Oct. 10, 2012, meeting journalists John Simerman and Gordon Russell had with FBI agents before the story about convicted killer Telly Hankton and his co-defendants in the racketeering case appeared in NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Hankton's attorneys said grand jury secrecy was violated and the indictment should be thrown out. To bolster their contention, they subpoenaed Simerman, Russell and FBI agents who attended the meeting.
The reporters, who now work for The New Orleans Advocate, had fought the subpoenas.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman refused to block their testimony. However, in a March ruling, he limited the scope of questioning.
The reporters and two FBI agents who testified said the agents did not confirm that an indictment was imminent or provide confidential information.
When questions turned to exactly who the reporters' confidential sources were, Feldman sustained objections from the journalists' lawyer, Loretta Mince.
"He's acknowledged that he has many sources - which reporters always have," Feldman told Hankton attorney Arthur "Buddy" Lemann at one point during Simerman's testimony. "And you're not going to go into that, for Constitutional reasons."
FBI agents Keith Burriss and Chip Hardgrave said they agreed to the meeting, which was sought by Russell, because they wanted to see what the journalists knew, whether federal investigators may have leaked information to them and whether the story they were planning might compromise the safety of agents who planned to arrest suspects not already in jail.
The agents said they were satisfied, once the meeting was over, that the investigation wasn't compromised.
Russell, who returns to the stand Thursday, said he remembers reporters asking a lot of questions at the meeting but not getting many answers.
Both agents acknowledged that they now feel there were times that they said more than they should have at the meeting. Hardgrave acknowledged being the source of a comment in the story comparing Hankton to Keyser Soze, the fictional villain in the movie "The Usual Suspects."
"Frankly, I shouldn't have done it," Hardgrave said.