Election fraud survey leads to D.A. visit

Prosecutor drops by Tribune newsroom in search of notes

WISCONSIN -- Reporters at the Marquette Tribune wanted to offer a look inside Milwaukee County's election, and they ended up with the district attorney knocking on their door.

Staffers of Marquette University's student newspaper responded to widespread rumors of voter fraud in the state with investigative reporting that included a survey of 1,000 Marquette students. The nonscientific survey, conducted in person and over the telephone, guaranteed participants anonymity.

After a Nov. 13 article reported that 174 respondents to the survey said they voted more than once in the presidential election, prosecutors in Milwaukee County sought the newspaper's notes.

Wisconsin case law protects reporters' notes unless they are the last resort for law enforcement officials seeking relevant information in an ongoing criminal investigation. The state has no statutory shield law.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Mahoney visited the Tribune office Nov. 16 with the intent of talking to reporters and examining their notes for an ongoing investigation into the rumors of voting fraud.

Dean of Communications William Elliott and Tribune adviser Michael Heinz denied Mahoney entrance to the office and refused to grant him access to the notes, which reporters said would yield little information to authorities because they include nothing more than tally marks. Tribune staff members did not record the names of students polled.

Neither Mahoney nor Milwaukee County District Attorney Michael McCann will comment on the interactions with university officials or students in the case.

Since his visit to the newspaper, Mahoney has requested a description of the students' methods and questions used in the survey. Heinz said the newspaper complied because the information had already been published.

The district attorney's office has not issued a subpoena in the case, but Heinz said the newspaper would fight it if issued. Elliott said the college would support that cause.

"On the advice of our counsel, we would take the case to court," Elliott said.

Despite the inconvenience of the case, Elliott said it is teaching Tribune students a valuable lesson about their roles and responsibilities as journalists.

"The student press in Wisconsin should know that they have obligations to their sources and to their profession that can place them in difficult situations," he said. "They should know that they have the right to refuse access to information."

reports, Winter 2000-01