By Nick Keppler
4:00 PM EST, February 12, 2013
What started as a typical assignment for Nancy Chapman, then a reporter for the online Norwalk Daily Voice, ended in a warrant for her arrest, ordered by the mayor of the city she covers.
On June 26 of last year, Chapman attended a Norwalk City Council meeting, sitting in an area reserved for the press. She brought her digital recorder and left it running while the meeting was in recess and she had left the room. The device caught Mayor Richard Moccia speaking to two labor leaders, the president of the city teachers union and the president of the one representing school administrators. She later described the talk as "an impromptu negotiation session."
Two days after the meeting, Chapman sent an e-mail to Moccia explaining that her device caught the conversation. She acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation, suggesting preemptively that he talk to her editor if he wanted to complain about the recording. Ultimately though the editorial team of the Norwalk Daily Voice, which is part of a network of hyper-local news websites covering 52 communities in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, "decided that this is a story, which will run in the morning," Chapman told Moccia in the e-mail.
A few hours after e-mailing Mayor Moccia, Chapman got an e-mail from Robert Maslan, who is both corporation counsel for the city and Moccia's personal lawyer. "Recording a private conversation as you did, without the consent of the participants, constitutes an invasion of privacy, and may also constitute a violation of the eavesdropping statutes," Maslan wrote. "Publication of the contents of the conversation would raise significant legal issues, and we are considering legal options."
If this was an attempt to intimidate the Daily Voice, it worked. They dropped the story.
Nonetheless, Maslan prepared a criminal complaint on eavesdropping charges. The warrant has been sent to the courts, the mayor's executive assistant Sally Johnson confirmed to the Weekly. Moccia declined to comment. E-mails involved in this case are now public information because of the legal proceedings.
Chapman declined to comment for this story. In an e-mail Chapman said her lawyers have advised her to stay silent. In a post on her blog, Nancy on Norwalk, Chapman stated that a variety of issues caused her to leave the Daily Voice.
City Councilman David A. Watts is arguing for Maslan's dismissal over the issue. (It was Watts' resolution, submitted on Jan. 8, demanding that termination that made many of the e-mails referenced above public.) "The city can use its resources in a better way than to go after a reporter," says Watts. "The press has a right to cover public matters." He added that there are two conference rooms near the council chambers that Moccia and the two union officials could have ducked into if their conversation had really been private.
"I don't remember Mitt Romney going after whoever made the '47 percent' video like this, and that was a private function," says Watts.
Professor Maureen Croteau, head of the University of Connecticut's journalism department, says Chapman did nothing wrong. Moccia and the union heads "were at a public meeting where they should have known they would be recorded. Does she have to announce when the recorder is on and off? I don't think so."
She said Chapman's intent is also important. "If she had intentionally left it running in hopes to trap them and hear things that were secret without their knowledge, that would be wrong on several counts, but once she got that information, what could she do? She couldn't unhear it."
James Simon, who heads the print journalism department at Fairfield University, disagrees. "It appears to be illegal in Connecticut to do what the reporter has done," he says, "and the story is not so earth-shattering that it would call for a reexamination, so I would not use the material."
As for Chapman, state police paid her a visit and merely talked to her about the incident. Though the criminal complaint has been submitted to the court system, a judge has yet to sign a warrant for her arrest.
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