Former prison warden tries to smite pesky reporter
This surely wasn’t in his job description. Freelance reporter and frequent SN&R contributor Stephen James has had to do a lot of things in his years of covering prison guards and allegations of corruption inside the state’s corrections agency. He’s sifted through reams of arcane government documents and spent hours reporting on legislative hearings and court proceedings (see this week’s cover story, “Standing up to corruption”). He’s interviewed dozens of reluctant, even hostile, subjects. But he’s never been assaulted by a corrections employee.
Until now. That’s what happened, according to James and witnesses who said that former prison warden Anthony Lamarque tried to strike James in the face and head with his cane, after James tried to take his picture in a Seaside hotel on June 21.
James approached Lamarque, the former warden of Salinas Valley State Prison, as part of an ongoing story about Donald Vodicka. Vodicka was a prison guard at Salinas Valley and says he was retaliated against by other guards and the California Department of Corrections (CDC) after he blew the whistle on violence and corruption inside the state prison system. (See “The code of silence”; SN&R Cover; May 13, 2004.)
Lamarque had traveled to the Embassy Suites hotel in Seaside (just north of Monterey) to testify at a deposition as part of Vodicka’s lawsuit against the CDC.
James also went to Seaside intending to photograph Lamarque and Deputy Attorney General Mary Cain-Simon. The attorney general’s office is defending the CDC against Vodicka’s lawsuit.
According to James, he waited in a hallway outside the hotel conference room where the deposition was being held. Cain-Simon came out of the room to speak to another witness who was waiting to testify. James said she saw him and his camera and became agitated, asking the reporter what he was doing there. He replied that he was there to take the warden’s photo for his story. But Cain-Simon told James no, saying that Lamarque was very ill and that she preferred he not have his picture taken. Lamarque is on medical leave but remains on the CDC payroll.
James said that he tried to compromise. If Lamarque was not feeling well, James said, he could take the photo while the warden was seated in the conference room during the break in the deposition.
But James said that Cain-Simon still refused and threatened to have hotel security remove him from the building.
“I told her, I don’t think you can do that. This is a public place,” James recalled. Cain-Simon returned to the conference room.
An excerpt of the transcript being taken by a court reporter inside the room shows that Cain-Simon complained about James’ presence and then accused Vodicka’s attorney of summoning James to “harass this witness.”
When Cain-Simon re-emerged from the room, James decided to take her photo at that time. He said Cain-Simon became even more incensed at this and said, “Now you’re harassing me,” and then she left to get hotel security. James noticed that the door to the conference room was open and that warden Lamarque was sitting inside.
James started setting up his digital camera and asked Lamarque for a photograph. James said Lamarque murmured something that James couldn’t make out, before he started trying to strike the reporter with his walking cane. “He started jabbing the cane at my head and at my camera,” James continued. James attempted to back out of range of the stick. But he said that despite Lamarque’s illness, Lamarque jumped up out of his chair and kept poking the cane at James.
“I was worried; he intended to hit me in the head. He would have hit me in the head if I hadn’t been able to duck.” During the scuffle, the flustered James attempted to take Lamarque’s picture. But the image from his digital camera shows only the hotel-room carpet and the corner of a gaudily upholstered chair.
James said he found himself backed up against the hotel-room wall unable to escape. With James pinned, Lamarque then retreated into the hotel-room bathroom.
James filed a police report on the alleged assault with the Seaside Police Department but said he hasn’t heard whether the local district attorney intends to pursue the charge. Lamarque was unavailable for comment.
He also is considering filing a formal complaint with the attorney general’s office against Cain-Simon. “It was a routine assignment. And I had a right to be there,” James said. “I felt like she was deliberately trying to obstruct media coverage of the case.”
Vodicka, along with his attorney, Lanny Tron, was in the room during the melee. Vodicka gave a statement to Seaside police and wrote a letter of complaint to the CDC, saying he saw Lamarque jab his cane at James’ face and camera. CDC officials said Vodicka’s letter is being reviewed but that the agency has not yet decided whether to investigate the matter.
Vodicka’s attorney, Tron, also said he saw Lamarque try to strike James and said he wasn’t sure what brought the attack on. “Steve was very polite. He didn’t use any coarse language, just said, ‘I’d like to take your picture. Would you mind?’”
Cain-Simon declined to comment on the incident, referring questions to attorney-general spokesman Tom Dresslar. Dresslar said that by Cain-Simon’s account, James “was unduly getting into people’s faces. He was blocking people’s paths.”
“The actions taken by the representative of our office were entirely appropriate and consistent with the law,” Dresslar concluded.
James said he wasn’t blocking anybody’s path and wasn’t confrontational. “If anything, I was a little nervous.”
James also said he was “dumbfounded” that he wouldn’t be allowed to take his pictures. “I’ve been covering this story for two years. I’ve taken pictures everywhere from the Legislature to the prison-guards union headquarters. I’ve never had a problem.”
Terry Francke, an attorney with Californians Aware, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen open-government laws, said that James was completely within his rights to go to the hotel and attempt to interview subjects and take their pictures. A hotel is a public place, Francke explained. Although a reporter may have no right to barge into a deposition while it is in session, the hallway outside the conference room was not much different from a public sidewalk. “The problem is when a deputy A.G. takes it upon herself to declare a reporter a nuisance, when what she really means is that she doesn’t want him to cover the story,” Francke explained. “Reporters have a right to cover a story in a hotel without being hounded out by the government.”
But Dresslar said that’s not the point. “It’s not a matter of him having a right, or not having a right, to take a picture. The issue was that his behavior made it impossible to conduct the deposition.”