When should investigation details become public?:Matt's Memo

Martin J. Rothchild.

A team of investigators walked out of the attorney's office with computers and other materials. They did the same at his home. It was a public spectacle. People wondered what were the New York State Police, Secret Service and other special crimes units doing at the home and office of attorney Martin J. Rothschild.

The raids were the first public hint of an ongoing investigation that began months before. Once spotted law enforcement confirmed the investigation existed, but offered no details. They are not obligated to offer any under the law. We pursued other avenues. The source of the search warrant, for example. The court told us they could not release any information under the law.

We were even told by staff at the District Attorney's office that nothing would be forthcoming until it's decided whether an arrest will be made. Yet, the District Attorney of Onondaga County made his own judgement that now was the time to release a general picture to the public of the nature of the crimes being investigated. Bill Fitzpatrick told us on our NBC 3 news set that law enforcement is looking for evidence of child pornography on Rothschild's computers. He told us they do not believe he had actual contact with children, but rather was dealing with material produced elsewhere.

While telling us about the involvement of the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, Fitzpatrick acknowledged several times that Rothchild has not been charged with a crime and even if or when he is charged the well known attorney is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The law tells us that is so. Innocent until proven guilty. Public opinion is entirely another matter. Ask Bernie Fine. The investigation into allegations against him went public when investigators raided his home. Of course, the airing of the new infamous tape with his wife's voice didn't help. The federal investigation in that case ultimately concluded with no charges at all. Was it right that Fine's name was dragged through the public domain?

As a journalist and a defender of the public's interest and right to know I generally favor a greater release of information over less disclosure. If court rooms and judges are involved it often means the investigation is progressing toward an arrest. But, not always. The tarnish that comes from being named as someone under investigation is a serious punishment to suffer, especially if a charge never comes. Police, prosecutors and journalists all need to balance an individual's right to privacy, integrity of investigations and the public's right to know before deciding what should be released and what should be reported.


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