The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 13, 2012

Lawmakers offer help in FBI bug probe

CHARLESTON — Democratic leaders of the Legislature say they are willing to assist an FBI investigation into an alleged bugging incident at the Regional Jail Authority, provided if such an inquiry is afoot and federal authorities want their help.

The question is, however, if there is indeed an FBI probe in progress surrounding an eavesdropping tool purportedly found in the office of operations chief John Lopez this summer.

As interims began this week, Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, produced a memo from an FBI agent advising Lopez that the Justice Department is looking into the alleged bugging of his office in July.

House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, and Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, emphasized Wednesday that the use of an audio device without permission is a federal offense.

“If there’s some sort of bugging, that’s a federal issue,” Thompson said after a meeting of the Joint Committee on Government and Finance, which he and Kessler co-chair.

“It concerns me, obviously, if it is being investigated by the FBI and in fact it did occur. Wiretapping is a federal crime. Obviously, I wouldn’t condone or approve that.”

Thompson said he has no knowledge that the FBI is investigating the report. Kessler answered in much the same fashion.

“The only thing I’m aware of is what I’ve read in the media reports, as well,” Kessler said.

“But it does appear from what I’ve read that it is being looked into by some appropriate agency. If that’s the case, we’ll see how it plays out and we’ll see if there’s any additional state action that needs to be taken by the Committee on Special Investigations, or some other appropriate type of legislative committee.”

In an intense meeting of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority this week, Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Joe Thornton and Jail Authority Director Joe DeLong emphatically denied any knowledge of the alleged bug or of any investigation — internal or external.

Perry and his fellow co-chairman, Sen. Bill Laird, also D-Fayette, and a third panelist, Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, fired question after question at DeLong, a former majority leader of the House, and Thornton.

Reverting to his former role as a prosecutor, Kessler said he recalled West Virginia law likewise forbids eavesdropping with a recorder if a party is unaware his voice is being recorded.

That, he pointed out, doesn’t come into play, when a caller leaves a voice mail on another’s telephone, since there is no question the message is being taped.

Without a warrant, however, Kessler said, one cannot intercept another’s voice and record it.

“In this incident, it appears there was no consent from the other party,” Kessler said, provided it did occur.

The matter was disclosed a few weeks ago when Perry told The Register-Herald that Lopez found the device in a ceiling air duct after spotting some debris from it in his office chair.

At the time, he and DeLong were competing for the permanent director’s job, which ultimately fell to the latter when the six-member RJA board selected him.

“I don’t have any information there was an audio recording device,” Thompson told reporters after the Joint Committee on Government and Finance.

“I don’t have any information there. What I hear was there was not. I’ve not been privy to that investigation. I don’t have any information whatsoever that there was an audio.”

If there is indeed an FBI inquiry in progress, Kessler said the proper course for the Legislature is to let it run its course.

“If they ask for any cooperation or assistance, I’m sure we would lend it,” he said.

“But at this point, it appears to be conducted independently by another agency, so we’ll see what, if anything, they do.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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