Tommy Russo
Tommy Russo

Tommy Russo, FOW (Friend of the Weekly) and Maui Time Publisher, Gets Support in Legal Fight with Cops

Longtime readers may recall the Anthony Pignataro byline from OC Weekly print editions of past. Foes, friends and close readers know that the investigative reporter left our little slice of paradise for an island paradise, Maui, where he was editor of the Maui Time Weekly.

Pignataro later returned to the mainland, the Sacramento Valley to be precise, to join Cal Watchdog, where he rakes state muck alongside the Orange County Register's former opinion writer, Steven Greenhut.

Meanwhile, back on Maui, Pignataro's former publisher, Tommy Russo, is the one making headlines.

Shortly after leaving his Wailuku office around 9 p.m. on April 12, Russo happened upon a camera crew filming Duane Chapman, better known as "Dog the Bounty Hunter," in a Maui parking lot. So Russo picked up a camera of his own and started taping the proceedings, thinking it might be of interest to online readers of Maui Time Weekly.

You'd have thought Russo was pointing a gun. Check out the reception he received from Dog's crew and local police officers below:

Instead of a follow-up featurette video on a national television show filming in Maui, Russo's online readers were treated to the video and now a news story about a publisher identifying himself as a legitimate journalist and practicing his First Amendment rights getting roughed up by cops and filmmakers.

What should have happened next was the police chief announcing that, after an internal investigation, he had concluded the officer shown in the video, Nelson Johnson, was in the wrong and that the department hereby apologizes to Russo. After all, as peace officers, members of Maui's force are sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

Perhaps the chief could have consulted with the city or district attorney to get the wording of the apology just right. Half of that did happen, the consulting part, not the apology. Ever. Instead, the cops and district attorney zeroed in on comments left with Russo's post about the incident. Turns out fish aren't the only thing being fished for in the Hawaiian Islands. Maui law enforcement is fishing for criminal charges against others instead of manning up to the wrong it did.

Perhaps that kind of attitude explains why some Maui Time Weekly readers have no love for local police. The comments from Russo's post below demonstrate the polar opposite of love, in fact:

the MPD,, the ONLY reason I own a LARGE CALIBRE, high powered rifle.

who needs criminals with this bunch of dog eating public menances running around.

Johnson needs a bullet when he walks out his door.

. . .

he's a crooked cop and should be fired or fired upon!!

The Maui Prosecuting Attorney's Office issued Russo a subpoena to obtain the identities of whoever left those comments anonymously.  The order seeks the IP addresses of those readers, who are accused of "terroristic threatening."

Everyone agrees the comments were harsh, but do they really rise to the level of terror threats? Russo does not think so, and he's fighting the supoena in court. The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), the publishing trade group whose members include Maui Time Weekly and OC Weekly, issued a resolution supporting Russo's legal fight. And Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, OC Weekly's Village Voice Media overlords, have chipped in $1,000 to Russo's legal fund.

"Law enforcement subpoenas seeking a reporter's sources are an occupational hazard the alternative press has experience resisting," Lacey says in an AAN-published statement. "However, the attempt of prosecutors to seek the identity of our online readers threatens not only the First Amendment but also serves to chill our audience which relies upon the web rather than newsprint."

Lacey and Larkin, who "faced the same intrusive threat from then County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix," issued a call for other AAN members to contribute to Maui Time's defense.

"We do not allow law enforcement to threaten our staff," Lacey writes. "We must not allow them to threaten our readers."


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