Federal authorities have launched a criminal investigation of CBS3 anchor Larry Mendte, searched his home and confiscated his personal computer, to determine whether he illegally accessed the private e-mail of former colleague Alycia Lane, numerous sources told The Inquirer yesterday.
Mendte's lawyer, Michael A. Schwartz, confirmed tonight that FBI agents approached his client on Thursday and searched his Chestnut Hill home.
Schwartz said it was related to "claims made by Alycia Lane." He added that "Larry is cooperating fully with the investigators and hopes to promptly reach a resolution of this matter."
Told of Schwartz's statement, Lane's attorney, Paul R. Rosen, said: "Alycia Lane did not make any claims involving anyone. The investigation by the FBI and the direction it took was done by the federal government and not by Alycia Lane.
"She was shocked when she learned of any invasion of her privacy," Rosen said.
The station issued a statement tonight that read: "Late this week CBS3 became aware of an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office regarding anchor Larry Mendte. CBS3 is cooperating fully with that office in this investigation."
The seizing of Mendte's personal computer - a rarity given his status as a journalist - was done by FBI agents from the Computer-Crimes Squad executing a search warrant.
Simultaneously, agents visited the TV station to discuss the case with CBS3 management, said the sources, who are close to the case and insisted on anonymity.
It could not be learned today what prompted the investigation of Mendte, 51, a nearly five-year veteran of the CBS-owned station who has won 43 Mid-Atlantic Emmy awards. He arrived for work Friday but left abruptly. It was not clear when Mendte would return to work. His image was still on the station's Web site.
A person who answered the bell at the home Mendte shares with his wife, Fox29 anchor Dawn Stensland, said the couple was not there. They did not return messages left on their home answering machine and cell phones.
FBI spokeswoman Jerri Williams and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Levy, chief of the computer-crimes section, declined to comment.
Sources said the FBI is investigating whether Mendte read Lane's private e-mails. It is illegal under federal law to read another person's emails without their permission.
Lane was Mendte's coanchor until her firing on Jan. 1 after she was accused of hitting a New York City police officer. Felony charges against Lane were dropped, and summary charges are expected to be dropped later this summer. At that point, her record will be cleared.
Lane did not return messages today.
Lane burst onto the national radar as gossip fodder in May 2007 after Suzy Shuster, wife of cable sports anchor Rich Eisen, sent Lane a scathing e-mail to chastise Lane for sending vacation photos of her and her friends to Eisen. It was not disclosed how the New York Post's Page Six column obtained the e-mail, which did not include the original photos.
The search warrant for Mendte's home was approved by a federal magistrate, after an FBI agent submitted an affidavit alleging probable cause that a federal crime had been committed.
The Justice Department has directed federal prosecutors to exercise caution when seeking a search warrant to seize documents and computers from journalists. Such searches are usually narrowly tailored to avoid searching for documents and files related to legitimate news-gathering.
"Look, search warrants are serious in any situation," said former federal prosecutor Jeff Lindy. "But when any law enforcement agency is executing a search warrant in someone's home, as opposed to a pro-forma car search, they are going to be much more careful. And when the feds are involved, they are going to be even more careful. When you add on top of that a search of [a] journalists' home, you're going to be very, very careful."
Analyzing a seized computer can take months, according to defense lawyers and FBI agents who spoke last year during computer forensics presentations to the media.
"If there are codes and password. . . or they are searching for deleted information - and nothing is ever really deleted unless you take a sledge hammer to it - it's going to take longer," Lindy said. "What takes so long is the backlog. There aren't that many computer experts who work for the government. To think, this would be done in weeks is too short. Every computer that is searched has to wait in line."
Almost from the July 2003 hirings of Mendte and Lane, CBS3 began a dramatic rise in ratings. It quickly unseated Mendte's former station, NBC10, and has ranked a solid No. 2 behind market leader 6ABC.
Mendte has been a strong public face for the station, especially during the upheaval and uncertainty surrounding Lane's suspension and firing.
Mendte also wrote and directed the Emmy Award-winning documentary, Alex Scott: A Stand for Hope, about the life of Alex Scott, whose creation of a lemonade stand to fight pediatric cancer led to a national movement after her death at age 8. The documentary played in television markets across the country, according to a station biography. The documentary also was honored by the National Society of Professional Journalists with the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi award for best documentary.
Before joining CBS3 in July 2003, Mendte spent six years at NBC10. His station bio says he previously co-hosted Access Hollywood and was weekday anchor and investigative reporter at Chicago's WBBM-TV and he was a main anchor for KFMB-TV in San Diego and a weekend anchor at WABC-TV in New York.