Senator likely to be rebuffed in News Corp inquiry

WASHINGTON Fri May 4, 2012 4:35pm EDT

News Corporation Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch leaves after giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry at the High Court in London in a April 26, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Olivia Harris/files

News Corporation Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch leaves after giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry at the High Court in London in a April 26, 2012 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Olivia Harris/files

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The British judicial inquiry investigating questionable reporting practices by Rupert Murdoch's media properties is unlikely to cooperate with a prominent senator's request for evidence of misconduct in the United States, three people familiar with the inquiry said.

The sources said that the judicial inquiry, created by British Prime Minister David Cameron and chaired by Sir Brian Leveson, a senior English judge, is not authorized to provide legal assistance or evidence to other bodies or organizations, including foreign government agencies or components. Nor is the inquiry investigating matters outside Britain.

Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, on Wednesday sent a letter to Leveson asking if his inquiry has uncovered any misconduct on the part of Murdoch's News Corp that occurred in the United States or violated American laws.

Murdoch and his global media empire have been embroiled in a "phone hacking" and bribery scandal since last summer when evidence emerged that Murdoch's now-shuttered News of the World tabloid hacked into voicemails of a missing British schoolgirl.

U.S. critics of Murdoch have been trying to instigate official investigations into whether similar questionable practices were pursued by Murdoch journalists in the United States, but so far U.S. probes have been limited.

Murdoch's properties in the United States include Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Post.

Rockefeller's request came after a British parliamentary committee issued a report on Monday that found Murdoch "not a fit person" to run a major international company, asserting that he was ultimately responsible for illegal phone hacking. [ID:nL5E8G1B3E] News Corp denounced the report's analysis as "unjustified and highly partisan."

Rockefeller directed his request to the independent Leveson inquiry, which is conducting an in-depth investigation into journalism practices used by British media owned by Murdoch and other proprietors.

However, there is no mechanism by which it would be within Leveson's purview to provide official assistance to Rockefeller or his committee, said the people familiar with the inquiry.

"Not in a month of blue Sundays" would Leveson agree to pass on evidence to Rockefeller's committee or any similar U.S. body, one source said.

A spokesman for Rockefeller said he did not have a comment beyond the five-page letter sent to Leveson.

A spokesman for Leveson confirmed that the inquiry had received Rockfeller's letter requesting assistance, but declined any further comment.

U.S. CONNECTIONS

News Corp and its 81-year-old chief are the subject of multiple British inquiries.

The company initially tried to contain the scandal by claiming phone hacking was limited to a single "rogue" reporter. But the controversy mushroomed, and more than 40 people, most of them journalists, have since been arrested on suspicion of bribery, phone hacking or other illegal activity. No charges have yet been filed.

The FBI last summer opened an investigation into possible phone hacking or other illegal reporting activities in the United States. To date, however, the FBI inquiry has found no evidence such practices were employed by journalists in the United States, a law enforcement source said.

Lawyers for British celebrities and other individuals have said there is evidence that Murdoch journalists may have engaged in questionable surveillance when the targets were physically on U.S. soil.

The lawyers have suggested that this could lead to the filing of civil lawsuits in U.S. courts alleging illegal practices by Murdoch operatives, although no such lawsuits have been filed and there may be jurisdictional limitations.

For example, actor Jude Law chose to go through the British courts, and not U.S. courts, in his phone-hacking case against Murdoch's News International, despite claims that News of the World hacked phones or voice mails when Law and his assistant were at New York's JFK Airport in 2003.

News International admitted "unconditionally" in British court documents earlier this year that it was liable for all Law's claims. News Corp had no further comment.

A person familiar with legal issues surrounding such cases said that jurisdictional issues could be murky even when a target such as Law may have been physically present in the United States when the hacking occurred.

The person said U.S. legal exposure may be limited because Law is British, and the journalists or operatives who were targeting him were also likely British or based in Britain. Also, while his phone may have physically been in the United States at the time of hacking, the server that held his voice mail messages may well have been located in Britain, too.

A U.S. law enforcement source confirmed that the FBI was still conducting a criminal investigation into possible violations by Murdoch journalists or operatives of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars bribes to officials of foreign governments.

But the source also said that this investigation was a long way from generating criminal charges against anyone.

U.S. officials and legal experts have said that the most likely outcome of any Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigation directed at Murdoch properties would be a large civil settlement rather than criminal charges under U.S. law.

(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Gary Hill)

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