CBS3 anchor Larry Mendte opened former colleague Alycia Lane's private e-mail account hundreds of times over many months, sources told The Inquirer yesterday, and the FBI is investigating whether he passed on gossip about Lane to the media.
In part, federal officials are trying to determine whether Mendte intercepted communication between Lane and her lawyers about her lawsuit against CBS3, which fired her in January.
Investigators have confirmed that Mendte viewed Lane's Yahoo account, sources said. Now, the sources said, investigators are combing through the e-mails he allegedly opened to see if the content can be correlated with embarrassing leaks to the media about Lane's private life.
Legal experts say the extent to which Mendte shared the information with others could determine his legal exposure. But even in a worst-case scenario, they said, he is unlikely to face jail time.
A CBS3 representative said Mendte, 51, remained employed by the television station but would be kept off the air pending resolution of an investigation.
"We intend to work with CBS3 to reach a mutually agreeable resolution as to Larry's status with the station," said his defense attorney, Michael A. Schwartz.
FBI spokeswoman Jerri Williams and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Levy declined to comment.
The alleged invasion of privacy is the latest controversy to engulf the popular anchors who catapulted CBS3 up the ranks in the fiercely competitive local news market. Lane was fired Jan. 1, two weeks after an altercation with New York police.
Legal experts say that Mendte's alleged actions might provide ammunition for Lane's legal war against CBS3.
Lane's attorney, Paul Rosen, said it was outrageous that his communications with his client might have been compromised. "You can't imagine the discomfort of learning that Larry Mendte, who is working for CBS . . . may have had access to her most intimate and personal communications," Rosen said.
The investigation into Mendte's alleged snooping came to light on Saturday, when The Inquirer reported that FBI agents searched Mendte's Chestnut Hill home on Thursday and seized a personal computer. Federal agents also delivered a court order to the TV station last week, demanding access to Mendte's work computer, sources close to the case said.
"Larry has been fully cooperative with the federal authorities and intends to be fully cooperative with the authorities in the future," Schwartz said.
The lawyer declined to comment on the specifics of that cooperation, or on whether Mendte had given a statement to FBI agents.
Schwartz said the investigation was sparked by complaints that Lane made. In response, Rosen said on Saturday: "Alycia Lane did not make any claims involving anyone."
What would motivate Mendte to dig into Lane's private e-mail remained a mystery yesterday. "We will leave the determination for the motive of the illegal actions to the U.S. Attorney's Office or the FBI," Rosen said.
Several current and former CBS3 newsroom staffers, who agreed to speak yesterday on condition of anonymity, said they were shocked at the suggestion of animosity between Mendte and Lane, who became an anchor team on Sept. 15, 2003. The combination quickly boosted the station's appeal: Mendte, the hometown guy, raised in Lansdowne, hired away from NBC10 after six years; and Lane, the rising star from Long Island, hired from Miami.
But two sources said their off-air relationship had its highs and lows; they seemed to be barely speaking by the end of last year, they said.
Their ratings, though, were golden. The Mendte-Lane pairing pulled CBS3's Eyewitness News out of the cellar and, for a time, within striking distance of longtime market leader Action News on WPVI. CBS3's ratings have held since Lane's departure.
Sources involved in the case said the federal investigation could be completed by the end of June.
The sentence for violating the computer-fraud law prohibiting unauthorized access is determined by the economic loss to the injured party, according to federal sentencing guidelines.
Cases in which the invasion of privacy was for economic gain - extortion, computer sabotage or insider trading - are likely to be treated more harshly.
The federal government's decision to swear out a search warrant against a prominent journalist intrigued former prosecutors and defense lawyers, who say the decision to prosecute would largely be determined by how Mendte used any information he might have accessed illegally.
Richard R. Harris, a Philadelphia defense lawyer, said he found it "particularly strange" that the case rose to a level that would interest the FBI.
"I could see Alycia Lane suing Larry Mendte if she believes he's tapping into her e-mail," he said. "I can't see the federal government becoming involved unless mail fraud is alleged."
But former federal prosecutor Rocco C. Cipparone Jr. said that Mendte's high profile "would certainly make it interesting to the feds" because he could be held up as an example.
In order to use Mendte's alleged actions to help her case against CBS3, Lane's lawyers would need to establish that Mendte passed along Lane's correspondence to his employers, said Henry E. Hockeimer, a former federal prosecutor and defense lawyer.
"The fact that he was an employee does not necessarily mean he was acting as an agent of the employer," said Hockeimer. He said key factors would be where Mendte conducted the alleged snooping - on whose computer, and using whose account - and whom he might have told.
It was not known yesterday who would replace Mendte on the anchor desk on the weekday 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. Susan Barnett, a Levittown native, replaced Lane.
Mendte is believed to make more than $700,000 a year. Mendte also will be replaced as host of the second annual full-day telethon on Thursday to benefit the charity Alex's Lemonade Stand. Mendte resigned from the board of the foundation last week for personal reasons, said Jay Scott of Wynnewood, father of Alex Scott, for whom the cancer-fighting charity is named.
Mendte, a nearly five-year veteran of the CBS-owned station, has won 43 Mid-Atlantic Emmy Awards and is married to Fox29 anchor Dawn Stensland. They did not return phone calls 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 photos of her wearing a bikini.
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.