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Prosecutors eye contempt charge against reporter's lawyer

PROVIDENCE -- Federal prosecutors are investigating whether criminal contempt charges should be pursued against a defense lawyer who admitted leaking an FBI tape to a reporter and lying about it.

The investigation was requested by US District Judge Ernest Torres, who has pursued the person who leaked the undercover tape showing a city official taking a bribe to a local television reporter.

During WJAR reporter Jim Taricani's sentencing hearing Thursday, lawyer Joseph Bevilacqua Jr. testified that he lied to a special prosecutor in February 2002 when asked whether he leaked the FBI tape.

Taricani was sentenced to six months of home confinement after being convicted of criminal contempt for refusing to identify his source.

Tom Connell, spokesman for the US attorney's office in Providence, yesterday said federal prosecutors ''are pursuing the mission referred to us by Mr. Torres's request. It's too soon to say how and in what form that mission will conclude."

Bevilacqua's lawyer, Thomas Tarro, said he expected his client will face charges for leaking the tape.

The tape showed former mayoral aide Frank Corrente taking a $1,000 cash bribe. It was part of a federal corruption probe, dubbed Operation Plunder Dome, which ultimately sent Corrente, former mayor Vincent ''Buddy" Cianci, and other city officials to federal prison.

Bevilacqua had the tape because he was the lawyer for former city tax official Joseph Pannone, who pleaded guilty in the corruption scandal. He said he believed the leak itself didn't violate a court order prohibiting lawyers, investigators, and defendants from disseminating information related to the probe, because he no longer represented Pannone when he gave the tape to Taricani.

The tape was aired during a peak ratings period for television stations.

''I panicked. It was poor judgment," he said during Taricani's sentencing hearing Thursday.

Torres showed little patience for either Taricani or Bevilaqua during Thursday's sentencing hearing.

''There are no heroes in this soap opera," said Torres, who had presided over the Plunder Dome trial against Cianci and Corrente.

Legal specialists said Bevilacqua opened himself up to additional charges, including perjury.

''Absent some agreement or some immunity, it would appear to me that there would certainly charges brought against him" said Joyce A. Faraone, president of the Rhode Island Trial Lawyers Association.

Faraone also said it's possible Bevilacqua could be sanctioned. It wouldn't be the first time that a lawyer involved in the case was punished for showing evidence that wasn't to be divulged.

Before the Plunder Dome case went to trial in 2002, Assistant US Attorney Richard W. Rose, the lead prosecutor in the Plunder Dome case, was fined $500 and suspended from the case for 30 days for showing a secret FBI surveillance tape to two friends and his sister.

Torres said Thursday he was too lenient in the action he took against Rose.

Bevilacqua could also face disciplinary action from the Supreme Court Disciplinary Council.

Faraone said Bevilacqua's law license could be suspended, and if he is found guilty of a criminal act, he could ultimately be disbarred, prohibiting him from practicing law.

Bevilaqua's lawyer did not immediately return a call for comment. Bevilacqua admitted he was the source less than a week after Taricani was convicted.

Bevilacqua came forward to a special prosecutor under threat of subpoena. Prosecutors were led to Bevilacqua after Taricani made an inadvertent comment to an FBI agent about his source.

Meanwhile yesterday, Taricani's lawyers were deciding whether to appeal his conviction and sentence of six months' home confinement, said Elizabeth A. Fischer, a spokeswoman for NBC Universal, which owns WJAR. Taricani has 10 days to appeal.

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