The trial this week of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri was a disgrace. It never should have happened, but it could occur again as long as John Sarcone remains the Polk County Attorney.
The prosecution of a reporter for simply doing her job during a Black Lives Matter protest drew international attention, outrage and condemnation. Here in Iowa, Sarcone’s actions were seen as a chilling warning to journalists that basic free press rights will not be respected in Polk County. Fortunately, the jury saw through their weak case.
“The verdict is an embarrassing outcome for the office of Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, which pursued the charges despite widespread condemnation from advocates for a free press and human rights,” reported the AP.
For his part, Sarcone, who has served in his office since 1991, doubled down on his office’s actions afterward. He tried to assert what the prosecutors hinted at during the trial — that they believed the ridiculous idea that Sahouri was partaking in the protest herself while there, despite all clear evidence to the contrary. A fellow Register reporter who was near Sahouri when she was arrested was allowed to leave by police. As many have noted, the reporter allowed to leave was white. Sarcone chose to continue on with Sahouri’s charges, which he easily could have dropped and moved on to other issues.
Many have asked how this all could have happened, how Sarcone could carry out a punitive prosecution more reminiscent of Donald Trump’s authoritarian-like actions than a Democratic county attorney in the state’s largest, Democratic county.
Many have also wondered when or if they’ll ever see condemnation from Sarcone’s fellow Democratic elected officials or leaders in Polk County. Few have come, and we may be waiting quite a while considering who has supported the county attorney’s unchallenged elections in the past.
Look through any of Sarcone’s campaign finance reports and you’ll see nearly the entire local Democratic establishment and a who’s who list of South Side activists and donors. Many of those Sarcone donors happen to be the exact same Democrats who posted their outrage on social media about any of Trump’s assaults on the free press. Yet when it’s their friend who’s literally ordering the prosecutions of reporters for news outlets they know, in their own city, you noticeably don’t hear a word out of them.
Of course, there hadn’t been many cases with Sarcone that were as high-profile or well-covered before (local court watchers view his office as overly aggressive in prosecuting low-level offenders, especially people of color — there’s been some public criticism of it, but nothing as big in the news as this past week). But now that we’ve been through this one, it would be especially unacceptable to see Polk County Democratic leaders line up behind him again.
Again, it needs to be stressed: this was not normal. This was not some sort of run-of-the-mill legal case that Sarcone was backed into doing. As the Washington Post reported, there were at least 126 journalists across the country who were arrested while doing their job in 2020, most of which happened during racial justice protests. Yet the vast majority had charges dropped against them, with only about a dozen still facing them. Sahouri is “so far the only one to stand trial.”
The only one in the country.
Let that sink in.
Polk County, Iowa was the only place in the country where a reporter arrested last year has stood trial. And that is because of John Sarcone, the person who many Polk County Democrats consider their friend.
One other thing: the prosecution’s ridiculous suggestion that Sahouri was actually a protester herself (despite obvious, public evidence she was reporting on it in real time) came as a surprise to many trial watchers. However, I actually noticed this rumor floating around in Iowa Republican consultant and staffing circles as far back as September. It certainly makes you wonder who had been talking with them to promote this smear.
Many engaged Iowans wondered why on earth Sarcone would pursue such a case. Many couldn’t imagine him running for reelection after this.
To those folks I would ask: do you not pay any attention to Polk County politics?
Sarcone’s behavior here was perfectly emblematic of a longtime, entrenched local official who never faces any opposition. Their party background matters little to their own thinking when they feel they have limitless power. And far too often, local politicos who in any other circumstance would personally oppose such actions stick with the guy because he’s just part of the crew that everyone always supports.
He will almost certainly face a primary challenger next time. Kimberly Graham, who ran for Senate in 2020, is already exploring a run.
I have no knowledge of whether Sarcone will seek reelection in 2022, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. I can, however, guarantee you this: those who continue to support Sarcone publicly and financially after this outrageous prosecution will receive significant scrutiny from those of us who actually support the free press.
by Pat Rynard
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