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A federal court will be asked to decide whether Henry County, Ga., officials violated wiretapping laws when they circulated a police officer’s private voicemail messages. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta by a former reporter with The Henry County Daily Herald, accuses former Henry County Police Chief Jimmy W. Mercer, County Manager James R. Risher, and Commissioner Gary Freedman, among others, of circulating within county government messages left for the police department’s public information officer on his personal pager. Conner v. Tate, No. 1:00-CV-1723 (N.D. Ga. July 10, 2000). The suit was filed by Chrystel M. Conner, a former reporter for the Daily Herald. Conner left the Daily Herald last year and says she is now a private investigator. Conner says she had developed a personal relationship with Lt. Mark Tate in 1998. Tate’s then-estranged wife, Teresa, accessed her husband’s voicemail account in the spring and summer of that year, including messages that Conner left for Mark Tate. Tapes of those messages were brought to the police chief and others in county government, who circulated them freely, according to Conner’s claim. The messages were read at the police department’s roll call and to at least one county commissioner, the claim alleges. Conner says officials threatened to embarrass her with the messages if she didn’t back off from an investigation of financial improprieties in county government. In court filings, Conner’s attorney alleges that county officials tried to use the recordings as a “bargaining chip.” Conner alleges that she was warned by Risher, “You need to back off this because things are going to get real personal.” Risher did not return calls seeking comment. A grand jury declined to indict Teresa Tate for criminal violations of wiretapping laws. According to court records, Teresa Tate, now divorced from Mark Tate, claimed her husband authorized her to access his voicemail before he went abroad in 1997. She said she believes she still had permission to access his voice mail a year later. Mark Tate said she did not have permission. Teresa Tate also said she didn’t take the messages to county officials. Whether the messages were illegally intercepted is central to the suit. It is illegal to disclose the contents of an intercepted message if the user knows it was obtained illegally. But an attorney for the defendants says the police shouldn’t be held liable for listening to information brought to them by a citizen, regardless of how it was obtained. McDonough attorney Michael O’Quinn is defending Henry County, county officials and the two police officers named in the suit, and Mercer, who is manager of security at Cox Enterprises. “None of my clients wiretapped anybody. Nobody with Henry County intercepted any communications,” O’Quinn says. O’Quinn acknowledges that Tate’s wife “brought certain information to the police chief.” For county defendants, whether those recordings were made illegally is irrelevant, he says. “There’s a whole issue of whether Teresa Tate had the authority to do that. That’s not my fight,” he says. “If a person brings information to the police … do the police violate the federal wiretapping act by simply listening to a complaint by a citizen? I don’t believe that’s what the statute says.” In court pleadings, Conner’s lawyer, James B. Sullivan of Decatur, argues that the police officers and the chief “were aware of defendant Tate’s illegal interception” and “could have acted together or independently to stop the illegal conduct.” The allegations were the basis of a 1998 GBI investigation requested by Henry County District Attorney Tommy Floyd. The GBI closed the investigation last year after a Henry County grand jury reviewed the case and declined to indict anyone. Teresa Tate was the target of that investigation, her Lawrenceville, Ga., attorney, James R. Argo Jr., confirms. Floyd says the criminal case “was fairly complicated from the standpoint of what violates the law and what doesn’t,” but the grand jury determined that the conduct surrounding the indictment didn’t violate any law. It was, he says, “a fairly exhaustive investigation.” The GBI would not release information about the tapes’ contents included in the case file because “the contents of any privileged wire, oral or electronic communication intercepted either legally or illegally, are exempt from public records law.” Conner says the messages contained references to confidential sources, some in the police department, who were feeding her information. Argo acknowledges that recordings were made of messages left for Tate’s husband. But he argues that because Mark Tate had granted his wife general powers of attorney over his affairs when he went abroad in 1997, had given her his voicemail access code, and asked her at that time to record his messages, she was within her legal rights to continue doing so more than a year later. Former Chief Mercer referred all questions about Conner’s suit to O’Quinn. But in a Dec. 22, 1998 interview with Dalton, Mercer admitted that Teresa Tate had provided him with information that she asked him not to disclose to the GBI. Mercer told Dalton at that time that he believed Tate had not committed a crime or obtained the information illegally. The defense may try to show that the suit is part of an effort by Conner to discredit county officials. “Conner has done whatever she can to publicly humiliate” county officials in newspaper articles, Mercer told a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent, according to a GBI report. In a memo to the GBI, Mercer said, “I am all too familiar with Ms. Connor’s reputation and vindictiveness and will not willingly aid or abet her endeavors to draw me into what I know to be a domestic matter between she and the party in question. This is another desperate ploy to gain information that she might otherwise not be entitled.”

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