Legally Speaking: Perverted Journalism-Part Two

John G. Browning Aug. 8, 2007, 9:58am

A controversial sting operation that ended with an assistant D.A.'s suicide, allegations of sexual solicitation, a high-profile lawsuit and a whistleblower's shocking revelations -- all the ingredients that one might expect of a Dateline NBC feature story.

However, as Part One of "Perverted Journalism" revealed, this time Dateline NBC was the story. Even as the newsmagazine was reacting to the $105 million wrongful death lawsuit by the sister of the deceased prosecutor Louis "Bill" Conrad, it was rocked by the revelations from a former producer of "To Catch a Predator" of alleged bribery, checkbook journalism and questionable ethics.

While some of the details of that fateful day in November remain a mystery, the events that led up to it are fairly well-documented.

Former Murphy City Manager Craig Sherwood and Police Chief Bill Myrick contacted Dateline NBC in the summer of 2006 and invited them to Murphy. Sherwood, who resigned amidst criticism from Murphy Mayor Bret Baldwin and many members of the Collin County town upset over the luring of sexual predators to their community, allegedly received "money, services, representations and/or other things of value" from NBC, according to Patricia Conradt's lawsuit. Mr. Sherwood has not commented on these allegations.

Dateline NBC leased a house in an upscale Murphy subdivision, rigged it with multiple cameras, and hired actors posing as minors to help lure suspects into the trap.

Over the course of the four-day operation, 24 men ranging in age from 23 to 58 were caught and arrested; among them were a middle school teacher, an engineer, a pension manager and a retired doctor. All were charged with online solicitation of a minor.

Under a Texas law adopted in 2005 to combat the problem of Internet predators, it is a second-degree felony (punishable by 2 to 20 years in prison) to have such communications with someone under the age of 14 – even if no actual sexual contact takes place.

The late Bill Conradt wasn't among those who showed up at the Murphy sting house. According to police, however, he had engaged in sexually explicit chat room conversations with a Perverted Justice volunteer posing as a 13-year-old boy. Allegedly, he used the screen name "inxs00".

What prompted the decision to rush police and Dateline NBC's crew to Conradt's house in Terrell for the arrest? According to Sergeant Snow Robertson of the Murphy Police Department, the urgency was supposedly to prevent Conradt from contacting another minor. Although the lawsuit alleges that other individuals may have contacted Dateline's online decoys but never showed up at the sting house, there were no other such arrest attempts.

Could it have been that the irony of arresting a veteran prosecutor, with over two decades of fighting crimes (including sexual offense cases), was simply too tempting for Dateline NBC to pass up? After all, the "To Catch a Predator" episodes have delighted in spotlighting the seemingly least likely of suspects, ranging from a Department of Homeland Security employee to teachers and members of the clergy.

Another reason for the rush to apprehend Conradt could have been the fact that Chris Hansen and the rest of the Dateline crew had plane tickets to fly home later that afternoon, something that Hansen has confirmed while maintaining that travel plans are frequently changed.

Was Bill Conradt "steam-rolled" into suicide, as his sister's lawsuit alleges, by a TV newsmagazine's rush to grab headlines and ratings? Dateline NBC executive producer David Corvo maintains that there was nothing to suggest that Conradt was aware of the crew's presence when he shot himself, and that there are no plans to review the show's procedures in the wake of the incident.

Corvo told the Columbia Journalism Review, "We do investigations that expose people doing things not good for them. You can't predict the unintended consequences of that. You have to let the chips fall where they may."

In fact, however, the street was blocked off by police, and Dateline's camera crew was on the block for hours before the attempted arrest. Officers visibly carrying cameras – allegedly provided by NBC – were part of the onsite team as well. It is hard to imagine Conradt not being aware that something was impending, and contemplating how irretrievably tainted his reputation as a respected prosecutor would be by even the accusation of soliciting sex from a minor.

According to eyewitnesses, Conradt told police "I'm not gonna hurt anyone," shortly before a shot rang out. At this point, the lawsuit alleges, a police officer said to a Dateline producer, "That'll make good TV."

Patricia Conradt, who has reviewed outtakes from NBC's footage, claims that one scene shows a female officer making light of the suicide, saying "Are we having fun yet?" shortly after the sound of the gunshot.

Former Kaufman County district attorney Ed Walton was incensed by Dateline's handling of the incident.

"You could not overstate how poorly things were handled," he told ABC News. "They murdered that man. That man is dead because of something he would have gotten probation for merely because of the way it was handled."

Patricia Conradt was even more blunt: "They have blood on their hands," she said in referring to Dateline NBC, law enforcement and Perverted Justice.

The evidence is clear that the attempt to arrest Bill Conradt was done under rushed conditions. According to a sworn affidavit done in support of the search warrant, the information about Conradt's alleged online activities was given to Murphy police by Perverted Justice mere hours before they planned to arrest him.

In their haste, the police badly botched the search warrant, making mistakes that some criminal defense lawyers and prosecutors alike believe would have resulted in any evidence seized from Conradt's house - including his computer hard drive and any purportedly incriminating e-mails - being tossed out of court. The search warrant not only featured the wrong date, but it listed the wrong county as well.

Both Dateline NBC and its "To Catch a Predator" correspondent Chris Hansen vigorously deny that their schedules or desires dictate what the priorities for local law enforcement should be. In testifying before Congress, Hansen characterized the arrests made by police as resulting from "parallel" police investigations, as if by coincidence they happened to be following the same leads as Dateline.

Former "To Catch a Predator" producer Marsha Bartel describes this as "a ruse to give the public the impression that NBC was conducting itself within ethical standards of the news industry."

According to the lawsuit papers filed by Patricia Conradt's attorney, these sting operations would never have occurred without Dateline's relentless pushing and aggressive promises of benefits, monetary or otherwise.

In Flagler Beach, Fla., police chief Roger Free was particularly reluctant to participate in the wake of Conradt's suicide, saying "Am I an idiot, after what happened in Texas? ... We do not need this exposure."

Nevertheless, after NBC allegedly provided enough in the way of incentives, Flagler Beach became much more receptive.

Similarly, in Long Beach, Calif., local police were purportedly skeptical about having such a sting operation, citing the costs of manpower and undercover vehicles needed for surveillance, until NBC representatives promised to "make it worth your while personally."

In Riverside County, Calif., "To Catch a Predator" producers allegedly responded to a sheriff's lieutenant's denial of resources for a sting operation by cajoling the officer to "Help your career. Be progressive."

Although most of the local law enforcement officials nationally who have been accused in Conrad's lawsuit of receiving bribes from Dateline NBC deny the charges, none have stepped forward to say that they had a "parallel investigation" that would have proceeded even without the network's monetary support. Without NBC's deep pockets, it would appear no "parallel" police investigation would have happened.

Some might argue that it doesn't matter if Dateline NBC has crossed a journalistic line in the sand, functioning as a privately-funded law enforcement agency rather than as a journalist reporting the news. After all, some would say, all's fair when it comes to eradicating online predators. Yet even here, many child welfare advocates are critical of both Dateline's methods and its representations about the prevalence of online predators.

Brad Russ of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force takes Dateline to task for playing such an active role along with Perverted Justice.

"I have a real problem with any citizen's group conducting any investigation into any crime," he says. "It's a mistake for law enforcement to abdicate its responsibility to citizens."

Dateline has also made liberal use of the purported statistic that 50,000 would-be predators are trolling the Internet for children at any given time, a figure picked up on by others such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and attributed to Dateline. When asked about the source for this number, Dateline identified a consultant and former FBI agent who has since said he's not sure where the figure had come from. In fact, studies conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire indicate that only about 4 percent of children who regularly used the Internet received "distressing" solicitations.

A 2001 Justice Department study puts the number of teens "aggressively solicited" by adults online at about 3 percent. Data compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children indicate that the most serious dangers to children lie far closer to home, with over 70 percent of child sexual abuse being perpetrated by family members or friends of the family.

While Internet predators certainly exist, Dateline NBC has devoted coverage to the issue that would appear to be out of proportion to the problem itself.

When one considers the payoff for NBC in terms of ratings, it's easy to discern the temptation to cut journalistic corners. As of late 2006, original airings of "To Catch A Predator" averaged 9.2 million viewers; by comparison NBC's hit comedy "The Office" averaged 7.9 million during the same period.

But Dateline NBC's success has come at a frightful cost. Just ask Patricia Conradt.

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