The FBI has launched a criminal investigation of CBS3 anchor Larry Mendte - searching his home and confiscating his personal computer - to determine whether he illegally accessed the Yahoo e-mail account of former colleague Alycia Lane, sources told The Inquirer yesterday.
Lawyers for Mendte and Lane disagreed about the origin of the investigation, which came months after CBS3 fired Lane following several embarrassing off-air incidents.
Mendte's lawyer, Michael A. Schwartz, confirmed last night 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."
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.
In a statement last night, the station said: "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 performed by agents from the FBI's computer-crimes squad.
Simultaneously, agents visited CBS3 to discuss the case with management, said the sources, who are close to the case and insisted on anonymity.
Mendte, 51, a nearly five-year veteran of the CBS-owned station, has won 43 Mid-Atlantic Emmy Awards. He arrived for work Friday but left abruptly. It was not clear when he would return to work.
A person who answered the bell at the house Mendte shares with his wife, Fox29 anchor Dawn Stensland, said the two were 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 was investigating whether Mendte had read Lane's private e-mails on her personal account. It is illegal under federal law to read other people's e-mails without their permission.
Lane was Mendte's coanchor until her firing 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 this summer. At that point, her record will be cleared.
Lane did not return messages yesterday.
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 chastising her for sending Eisen vacation photos of her and her friends. It was not disclosed how the New York Post's "Page Six" column had 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. That affidavit is sealed.
In general, the Justice Department has directed federal prosecutors to exercise caution when seeking a 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," former federal prosecutor Jeff Lindy said. "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 journalist's 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 reporters.
"If there are codes and passwords . . . or they are searching for deleted information - and nothing is ever really deleted unless you take a sledgehammer 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."
Computer evidence is tough to hide, experts say.
Unless someone is "trying to intentionally cover his tracks with special programs or procedure," evidence can be found to point to the guilty party, said Louis Cinquanto, managing member of Cornerstone Legal Consultants, which has provided work for defense lawyers in high-profile computer-related cases in Philadelphia, including the 2003 City Hall corruption case.
He said people who violate computer privacy "leave so many fingerprints out there, they'll be able to find it."
Almost from the July 2003 hirings of Mendte and Lane, CBS3 began a dramatic rise in ratings. It quickly unseated NBC10, Mendte's former station, and has ranked a solid No. 2 behind 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-winning documentary Alex Scott: A Stand for Hope, about the girl 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.
Before joining CBS3, Mendte spent six years at NBC10. His station bio says he previously cohosted Access Hollywood and was an anchor and investigative reporter at Chicago's WBBM-TV, main anchor for KFMB-TV in San Diego, and a weekend anchor at WABC-TV in New York.