Roll Call Reporter Says F.C.C. Security Pinned Him to a Wall

A reporter said he was pinned against a wall by two security officials in a public hallway at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington on Thursday after he tried to ask a question of a commissioner.

The reporter, John M. Donnelly of CQ Roll Call, said the officials’ behavior did not end there. They then waited for him outside a restroom, one of them followed him to the lobby and, under the implied threat of force, ejected him from the building, Mr. Donnelly said on Friday.

The commission said in a statement that it had apologized to Mr. Donnelly more than once and had told him it was on a heightened security alert on Thursday “based on several threats.” The commission did not respond to an email seeking elaboration about the nature of the threats or how Mr. Donnelly was perceived as a danger.

Mr. Donnelly, who customarily covers defense and national security issues, said he was at a public hearing hoping to speak to one of the commissioners for a story he was reporting.

The F.C.C. held a hearing on Thursday about net neutrality rules and when it ended, the commissioners fielded questions from reporters in an impromptu news conference. Mr. Donnelly said he wanted to discuss a different topic privately. As he waited in a hallway for one of the commissioners, he spotted Commissioner Michael P. O’Rielly.

“Commissioner, I have a question,” Mr. Donnelly said he began to say, but that was as far as he got before two security officials in plain clothes turned their backs on him, stood together and in a vise move pressed him into a wall for about 10 seconds as the commissioner walked by.

Mr. Donnelly said he is 165 pounds and 5 feet 10 inches tall. By his estimate, each of the security officials weighed at least 20 pounds more and were about the same height or slightly taller. Mr. Donnelly, 56, said he was not hurt but was incredulous about what happened.

“I tried to ask a question of a public official in a taxpayer-funded public building, and I did so politely, and I was treated as if I had thrown food at a commissioner,” he said. “There was absolutely nothing in my countenance that could be perceived as a threat. I think they interpreted that I was going to ask a question, and they were determined to stop it.”

He was holding a recorder, pen and pad and was wearing a press pass, he said.

Mr. Donnelly said he asked the men: “Really? You’ve got to block me like that?” He said one of the security officials, whom he identified as Frederick W. Bucher, asked why he didn’t ask his question at the news conference.

The identity of the other man was unclear. Mr. Bucher works for the Security Administration of the F.C.C., according to public records. A request to the commission for an interview with him went unanswered.

Mr. Donnelly said the article he was developing was unrelated to the hearing, and he wanted to ask his question out of earshot of other reporters at the news conference. It is common practice in Washington and other government settings for reporters to ask questions or attempt one-on-one interviews outside a press gaggle to protect an exclusive story.

He said the officials were “up in my face” and made clear verbally and in their body language that they wanted him out of the building. When Mr. Donnelly left and sat in a wooden chair in the lobby, Mr. Bucher approached. After some back and forth about why Mr. Donnelly was still there, the reporter said he was told he would have to leave.

In an exchange on Twitter, Mr. O’Rielly, the commissioner, wrote that he did not recognize Mr. Donnelly. “John, I saw security put themselves between you, me and my staff,” he wrote. He said he “didn’t see anyone put a hand” on Mr. Donnelly but that he didn’t doubt his account. Mr. O’Rielly apologized and added, without elaboration, that he was also “freezing and starving.”

“I appreciate the apology,” Mr. Donnelly replied. “But ‘put themselves’ there makes it sound dainty. They pinned me.”

Mr. O’Rielly, who was appointed to the commission by President Obama in 2013, did not respond to an email and a tweet seeking comment. The F.C.C. did not respond to questions about what, if any, changes might be made by security officials after the episode.

Two Democratic senators, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, sent a letter on Friday to the commission demanding a full explanation of what happened and seeking assurances that security staff would not restrain or threaten journalists in the future. They called it “a new low point in a disturbing trend” under the Trump administration.

Kathy Kiely, the press freedom fellow at the National Press Club Journalism Institute in Washington, said in a statement on Friday that the encounter reflected the current political climate.

“Incidents like these, occurring under a president who has openly threatened a free press, take on a greater and more ominous significance,” Ms. Kiely said. “And they do not seem to be isolated.”

Last week, a reporter in West Virginia was charged with a misdemeanor count of willful disruption of governmental processes after he persistently called out questions to Tom Price, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, in a hallway at the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va.

But Mr. Donnelly, who is the chairman the National Press Club’s team on press freedom and is president of the Military Reporters and Editors Association, said he did not want to put what happened into a political context. “The important thing is not me,” he said, “but what is the culture of the F.C.C. that says this is O.K.?”

[New York Times]

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