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Government defends recording Armstrong County man's jail conversation

| Monday, May 20, 2013, 2:43 p.m.
Emerson Begolly of Redbank Township.

The government on Monday denied using an inmate to target Muslim inmates and record them speaking with their attorneys.

“There were no recordings made (or any other gathering or reporting) of any attorney-client conversations ever,” said U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Tamara Collier.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kitchen, one of the attorneys prosecuting Emerson Begolly, 24, of Redbank, Armstrong County, said in a court document filed on Friday in Pittsburgh that the informant began working as a porter in the visiting area of Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, where attorneys meet with inmates, but only after he recorded Begolly threatening to kill a witness.

Begolly pleaded guilty Aug. 9, 2011, to soliciting terrorist acts on a pro-jihad website and to carrying a firearm during a scuffle with federal agents who arrested him in January 2011.

He was scheduled to be sentenced May 29. Assistant Federal Public Defender Marketa Sims filed a motion May 9 asking for a delay in the hearing, in part so that she could investigate whether the government used the inmate to record privileged conversations.

U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill on Monday granted Sims' motion and rescheduled Begolly's sentencing hearing for July 10.

Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor who is a St. Vincent College law professor, said it is unlikely that another inmate would be in a position to overhear or record a conversation between an attorney and inmate.

“That's a big deal — if you actually were listening in through any devices to attorney-client conversations,” Antkowiak said.

Kitchen said in court documents the government does not object to delaying the hearing but denies any wrongdoing. The informant reached out to prosecutors because he was seeking a deal with the government and offered up several pieces of information that included Begolly's threats, he said.

Before that Oct. 12 meeting, “neither undersigned counsel nor any member of the prosecution team involved in this case against the defendant Emerson Begolly was aware of the existence of the confidential informant, nor what information he/she might provide,” Kitchen said.

The government does not plan to charge Begolly with making the threat, but it may offer it at his sentencing as evidence that he shows no remorse for what he did, Kitchen said.

Jails record most inmates' phone calls but aren't supposed to record calls to lawyers. Even when police have a court-sanctioned wiretap, “they have to take steps to make sure those conversations are not recorded,” Antkowiak said.

David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, said jail conversations generally have fewer privacy protections than other conversations, but agreed it takes evidence of a crime to intrude on an inmate's conversation with a lawyer.

“Failing something like that, you can't just let someone in there who's recording attorney-client conversations,” he said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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