PORTLAND, Maine — District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz on Wednesday reversed a previous order restricting media coverage of testimony in open court and apologized to a Portland Press Herald reporter for what the judge described as an unlawful demand.
On Monday, Moskowitz directed Press Herald court reporter Scott Dolan and Sarah Delage of Portland NBC affiliate WCSH 6 not to report the statements made in court by a witness in a case against Standish lawyer Anthony Sineni.
The controversial order attracted nationwide condemnation from media, civil liberties and government transparency advocates.
According to the Press Herald, the newspaper’s reporter asked Moskowitz for time to call his legal counsel, but was denied. Both Dolan and Delage went on to defy the order and report on the witness’s testimony.
“I immediately said, ‘That’s not constitutional,’” Michael Redding, news director for WCSH, said in a statement. “You cannot forbid journalists from reporting on what is said in an open court of law. I’ve never heard of a judge ordering that. We ran it by our lawyers and they agreed, so we defied the order.”
On Wednesday, Moskowitz explained his initial rationale for the gag order and acknowledged that, in hindsight, it was illegal and a mistake.
“I learned that a witness was expected to testify, and was advised of some of the things the witness was expected to say, including statements relating to the witness’s young children,” the judge said, noting that he first reminded the media on hand of a standing — and commonly enforced — administrative order discouraging the photography and video recording of witnesses in a case.
“I also ordered the media present to refrain from reporting the specifics of the witness’s testimony,” Moskowitz continued. “I did this in an effort to protect the witness and her young family. It is now clear — certainly very clear to me — that this particular order was not lawful, and I should not have ordered the media to refrain from reporting what was said by the witness.”
The judge said his order likely would have been considered immediately void due to the fact that it was illegal, but to clear up any possible dispute, he officially rescinded it. He then singled out Dolan, who was in attendance covering the brief hearing Wednesday.
“I want to take the opportunity to apologize to Mr. Dolan for placing him in a very awkward position on Monday, and I appreciate the professional way in which he has proceeded since then,” Moskowitz said. “In order to rectify the error I made on Monday, I’m ordering that a transcript of the proceeding be made available to the public as soon as possible.”
Redding told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday he still had mixed feelings about how Moskowitz handled the situation.
“Today I have a lot of questions. Obviously the judge was gracious in his apology for making the gag order in the first place and I commend him for his openness and willingness to take it head on,” he said. “But the journalist in me says something doesn’t add up. While the judge was saying he did all this to protect the witness, I was watching that witness. She was clearly shaking her head back and forth in disagreement. So I’m left unsatisfied with the reasoning.”
The gag order multiplied media attention for a case that otherwise may have been headed for a quiet resolution Monday.
Standish lawyer Anthony Sineni III, 52, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of assault and disorderly conduct as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors from the Maine attorney general’s office.
A misdemeanor count of domestic violence assault, as well as three counts of witness tampering and a count of possession of a stolen gun — all of which are felonies — were dismissed by the court.
As part of the deferred disposition deal reached, the misdemeanor counts to which Sineni pleaded guilty will be expunged from his record within two years if he abides by certain legal and behavioral conditions.
The witness at the center of the gag order controversy was Sineni’s former girlfriend. While Moskowitz ordered that a transcript of her testimony be released to the public, clerks at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland on Wednesday said the document would not be completed and available until Thursday or Friday.
Attorney Chris Largay, representing Sineni, said on Wednesday he expressed concerns to Moskowitz about allowing the former girlfriend to issue a statement in court because she was not the victim of either of the misdemeanors still in play against his client and that the facts surrounding her allegations were in dispute.
Sineni and his former girlfriend each have accused the other of physical and emotional abuse during their 11-year relationship. The couple have three children — two together and one from the former girlfriend’s prior relationship.
Largay said on Wednesday that he did draft a motion to block the former girlfriend from entering a statement as part of court proceedings against his client, but said he never submitted the motion for official consideration and never asked Moskowitz to restrict reporters in their coverage of her testimony.
“All five of the initial charges, including all four felonies, were dismissed,” Largay told reporters outside the courthouse Wednesday afternoon. “After two years, the misdemeanor charges will also be dismissed. The individual is not a victim in either of these two charges. The statement read by this individual in court was replete with misrepresentations and falsities.”
Sineni’s criminal case may have concluded but his legal career faces scrutiny from the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar.
Under the rules that govern attorneys licensed to practice in Maine, a lawyer convicted of a crime must inform the board of that conviction within 30 days, Jacqueline M. Rogers, executive director of the board, said Wednesday.
“We were made aware through news reports of the charges pending against Mr. Sineni and Bar Counsel [Scott Davis] has opened an investigation,” she said.
Davis will determine whether the matter should be referred to a disciplinary panel, which would hold a public hearing. Ultimately, Sineni could be reprimanded, suspended from practicing or disbarred.
Largay said on Wednesday that Sineni “looks forward to continuing his successful law practice.”
“[He looks forward to] restoring his reputation as a successful and prominent attorney in this community,” Largay continued.
BDN staff writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.