News & Politics

FBI Tells Local Reporters It Was Listening in on Phone Calls With Former DC Council Member

At least one journalist whose calls were picked up is worried other sources will be scared to get on the phone.

When people spoke on the phone with former DC Council member Michael A. Brown several months ago, there was someone else on the line: the feds. The FBI is in the process of notifying people who chatted with Brown between last October and January that their calls were picked up as part of a wiretap during an investigation that led Brown to plead guilty in June to bribery charges.

Among those on whom the FBI eavesdropped: a few local reporters. WUSA9’s Bruce Johnson and then-Washington City Paper reporter Alan Suderman were among those who received letters this week from US Attorney Ron Machen‘s office letting them know agents were listening in.

“During the period of authorized interception, wire and/or electronic communications to or from your phone were intercepted,” the letter reads. Justice Department rules regarding surveillance offer a greater level of scrutiny to communications by journalists, though in this case, Brown was the one being investigated.

Brown pleaded guilty in June to accepting $55,000 in bribes, including $10,000 in cash delivered in a coffee mug.

But in learning that federal agents were dropping in on his calls with Brown, who lost his bid last year for another term on the DC Council, WUSA9’s Johnson is worried that other sources will be scared off. “I’m not going to be surprised if I call someone at some point in the near future and they say ‘I can’t talk to you because the FBI might be listening’,” Johnson told his station yesterday.

In a statement, Machen’s office says that the wiretap, which ran from Oct. 3 to Jan. 27, did pick up some of Brown’s calls not directly tied into the bribery investigation, but that agents attempted to limit that effect. “Significantly, law enforcement utilized procedures to minimize and reduce to the smallest possible number the amount of innocent and non-pertinent communications that were intercepted between individuals and the target of its investigations,” the statement reads.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.