Prosecutor Vincent Heintz had been trying for four years to bust mob heir John A. Gotti, succeeding in January 1998 with a 72-count racketeering indictment that has the junior Gotti mulling whether to cop a plea or hang tough and face a jury, like his Dapper Don dad.
Last September, however, reports began to circulate about a Justice Department investigation into leaks from the United States Attorney’s office in Manhattan, and on Jan. 29 Mr. Heintz was gone.
Bounced back to his former position in the Bronx District Attorney’s office, Mr. Heintz is reportedly the first Federal prosecutor ever, anywhere, fired for tipping off the press.
His dismissal already has had a chilling effect on law enforcement coverage, some reporters said-especially with reports circulating that the source of his ouster was a city reporter.
If true, reporters said, it is an unprecedented violation of the sacred trust between journalist and sources-a trust held especially dear in the fierce world of New York journalism, where competition for information is so intense.
Like the showdown in Washington over Kenneth Starr’s purported leaks, the case is raising questions about journalist-source relationships and fueling fears that reporters will wind up rebuffing subpoenas.
Neither Mr. Heintz nor the spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office-those in the best position to know the truth-would comment on the source of the allegations that led to Mr. Heintz’s dismissal. The case is still under investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
Veteran reporter Jerry Capeci, who covers organized crime for the Daily News , however, has accused a rival reporter, Al Guart of the New York Post , of tipping off the U.S. Attorney’s office about Mr. Heintz. Mr. Capeci has also accused Mr. Guart of sharing information about Mr. Heintz with Mr. Gotti’s defense attorney, Gerald Shargel.
Mr. Guart, who’s been assigned to the law enforcement beat for five years, denies he deliberately informed on Mr. Heintz, although he does admit that a question he asked might have led investigators to focus on Mr. Heintz as their leaker.
“If he [another reporter] is saying I gave up a name, that’s absolutely false,” said Mr. Guart. “If that led them to conclude that it was Heintz, and confronted him, that was out of my control.”
Asked if he shared information with Mr. Shargel, Mr. Guart said, “No. Period.”
Mr. Guart said the allegations against him are fueled by jealousy and competition between the two tabloids and over dueling Web sites for mob junkies-namely one he contributes to and one run by Mr. Capeci.
Mr. Capeci, however, said Web sites and jealousy have nothing to do with this and that the basis for his allegations against Mr. Guart goes deeper than the rivalry between the two newspapers. “What he did …was despicable,” Mr. Capeci told The Observer . “It’s just not what veteran reporters are supposed to do.”
Though Mr. Shargel said he doesn’t plan to pursue charges of prosecutorial misconduct as part of his defense strategy for Mr. Gotti, some journalists are concerned about the long-term consequences. In the short term, some said, it’s not making it any easier for them to do their job.
“You don’t even get the call back, where as before you’d get the courtesy of a call back saying, ‘Call Marvin [Smilon] and the press office,’ ” said Patricia Hurtado, the courthouse reporter for Newsday . “The problem is, we have so much to cover in the courthouse, we sort of rely on them to tell us what’s scheduled when.”
Ms. Hurtado added that prosecutors have lost their sense of humor. “I’ll be on the phone and joke with them, ‘This is on the record then, right?’ They’ll just say, ‘We’re not joking, stop it.'”
Mr. Heintz’s downfall is the result of a rare crackdown on prosecutorial leaks. They’ve been a fact of life in the decades-old competition between the Post and the News , which is never more bloody than when it involves crime-fighter sources and exclusives. Pushed by their editors, Post and News reporters know virtually any tidbit that includes the Gotti name will earn them a place on the front page-or at least somewhere “up front.”
The rivalry between the two newspapers grew especially hot last summer, as the News and Post played tag with exclusives about the case against Mr. Gotti. Mr. Capeci, 54, a former Post reporter himself who parlayed his now-defunct Daily News Gangland column into a book about the senior Mr. Gotti, said reporters fell pressure to beat the competition.
Mr. Guart, 41, said Mr. Capeci accused him of reacting to the rivalry by “outing” Mr. Heintz, whom he believed to be Mr. Capeci’s source. Mr. Guart said Mr. Capeci confronted him with the allegation on Jan. 29, the day after Mr. Heintz was dismissed for having “inappropriate contacts with the press.”
“I thought he was calling me about the [Web site] column, because he hasn’t called me yet to say, ‘Al, I liked your column,'” recalled Mr. Guart. “I thought it was a camaraderie thing. I like Capeci-you know, I’m starting not to like him. But I liked him, we got along fine.”
“Capeci went into the Brooklyn Federal courthouse and was telling people I did this, I did that. And you know what else he said? That my editors knew about it and we were all in on it. It’s a big conspiracy to harm our sources,” Mr. Guart continued.
“My sources still trust me,” said Mr. Guart. “When is this guy going to stop this crusade?” Mr. Guart said he believes the real impetus for Mr. Capeci’s anger is that he lost a source. He advised Mr. Capeci to get over it.
Mr. Guart admitted he may have, inadvertently, aided the investigation into leaks. He said he attended a Secret Service holiday party in mid-December, which Mr. Heintz also attended, where he heard some new details of the Gotti case.
The next morning, he contends, the Daily News had a story (“filled with some gibberish”), with different details of the story he had overheard. Mr. Guart said he called Mr. Smilon, at the U.S. Attorney’s press office, the next morning, and ran by Mr. Smilon the version of events he had heard “from somebody at the party.”
Mr. Guart contends Mr. Heintz had recounted his night at the Secret Service party during a meeting with other prosecutors on the same day that Mr. Smilon inquired about Mr. Guart’s press query. Mr. Guart speculates that that cast suspicion on Mr. Heintz.
A few days later, Mr. Shargel, Mr. Gotti’s defense attorney, accused Mr. Heintz of leaks, pointing a finger at him during a meeting at the U.S. Attorney’s office. “I told the Government that I had proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the source [of leaks] was Heintz,” said Mr. Shargel.
What was Mr. Shargel’s proof and how did he get it? “I can’t reveal my sources,” the lawyer said. Asked whether Mr. Guart had spoken to him about Mr. Heintz, he repeated that he would not reveal his source. But one source, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Shargel told him he and Mr. Guart had discussed Mr. Heintz.
Ms. Hurtado said reporters and their sources have been sitting around, playing “Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp”-speculating about Mr. Shargel’s “proof” against Mr. Heintz and his source.
“I know these guys [Mr. Guart and Mr. Capeci], I work with them,” Ms. Hurtado added. “It’s too bad. It’s a side effect of this huge competitive story, this real tabloid story. It’s shocking to think some of these accusations are true-whatever it is that happened.”
Stuart Marques, managing editor of the Post , did not return calls for comment. Mr. Guart said he told them about the allegations against him, after he realized the reports about him were widespread.
He speculated that Mr. Capeci’s interest in the matter is to protect Mr. Heintz. In another phone call, Mr. Guart speculated that Mr. Capeci was spreading rumors about him because he had broken a couple of stories in his AmericanMafia.com Web column that scooped the Web site Mr. Capeci runs, Ganglandnews .
Mr. Capeci replied: “I don’t care one bit about Al Guart writing for anybody. I haven’t mentioned his Web site to anybody. All this does is just cloud the issue.”
Meanwhile, some reporters said Mr. Heintz’s defrocking was all the more shocking as it was based on such minor leaks. “There wasn’t anything in the papers that was that horrific,” said Mr. Guart’s Post colleague Murray Weiss, criminal justice editor. “Maybe one paper got a one day’s heads-up of something that was going to be in the public record anyway. I don’t think his transgressions are so gigantic, but in the climate he got knocked off the case.