White Collar Crime Bill Encounters Snag in the House

Associated Press, carried in New Haven Register [Hartford CT]
June 3, 2003

HARTFORD - The Roman Catholic Church and civil libertarians say a bill that would give state prosecutors subpoena powers to investigate white collar crimes would jeopardize the priest-penitent privilege and trample the rights of average citizens.

But supporters say the measure, approved last week by the state Senate and now being debated in the House, is loaded with safeguards and leaves the privilege intact.

"You're never going to find a bill that is as restrictive as this one on the ability to question a person," Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano said Monday. "There are three reviews by a judge before one single question is asked or documents are produced. It is much more strict than a federal grand jury process."

A lobbyist for the Catholic Church disagrees and says there is language in the bill that endangers confidentiality.

"It's very clear that the clergy privilege is not guaranteed," said Marie Hilliard, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference.

She said the way the bill is written, a judge has the option of denying or quashing a subpoena if it involves a priest-penitent relationship.

Conversely, the bill bars prosecutors from issuing a subpoena if it involves an attorney-client relationship, she said. One privilege should not be treated differently than another, the church contends.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, a one-time opponent of the issuing investigative subpoenas, said he's convinced the bill has enough safeguards.

"The argument's not accurate. The privilege doesn't change, subpoena or no subpoena," said Lawlor, D-East Haven. "You can't compel people to testify anymore than they can subpoena in your doctor and ask what you said to him."

The bill would give prosecutors a new tool specifically to fight white collar crime. It would authorize prosecutors to apply to Superior Court for a subpoena to force a witness to testify.

The application would have to show "reasonable grounds" to believe that the witness has information relevant to an investigation. Prosecutors also would have to show that the testimony would not be available without the subpoena.

The failure by a witness to appear, produce information or testify would result in a contempt order by a judge or arrest.

Hilliard said the church's objection is not related to the sexual abuse scandal of children by pedophile priests, but rather the church's ability to administer social services.

"We're the largest human services agency in the state outside the government," Hilliard said. "This bill is one that would impact any agency that does the kind of services we provide."

Morano emphasized that the bill does not cover sexual assaults, but is specifically intended to root out white-collar crimes, corporate fraud and public corruption.

"I think there's a fear of a witch hunt here. That is not the desire of the state," Morano said.

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