After pleading guilty to a felony charge of hacking into the e-mail accounts of his onetime colleague Alycia Lane, former CBS3 anchor Larry Mendte went before the cameras yesterday and said he'd had a "flirtatious, unprofessional and improper relationship" with Lane.
At a 5 p.m. news conference, Mendte, who is married to Fox 29 anchor Dawn Stensland, apologized to his wife, to viewers and to Lane, saying he had been wrong to access her e-mails and then pass along information from them to reporters.
But Mendte said their once-close relationship had "turned into a personal feud" after Stensland confronted him about Lane on New Year's Day 2005 and he told her the truth.
He said he stopped having long dinners with Lane, stopped staying out late with her, and stopped allowing her to come into his office to do her makeup every day.
And that's when the trouble started, he said. Lane began "undermining" him with station management, he said, and he had "shows and responsibilities pulled away from me without explanation."
He started to check her e-mail.
"I did this without her permission, and it was wrong," said Mendte.
His 10-minute statement - which went far beyond anything said in court - triggered an immediate reaction from Lane's lawyer, Paul R. Rosen.
"This is a man obsessed with taking a woman down," Rosen said of Mendte.
He said that the two did not have an affair, and that Mendte's statement was "shocking and shows the true lack of remorse which the judge should take into consideration at sentencing."
Instead of "begging for forgiveness and asking for leniency," Rosen said, "he continues his attack on the victim with unfounded implications."
He said Mendte had been careful in his wording about the relationship between the news anchors and said he "would sue him for defamation" if Mendte called it an affair. "He knows it's false," said Rosen.
CBS3 last night issued a statement saying, "Larry Mendte, like all CBS3 employees, was treated professionally and fairly during his tenure here. His allegations are totally without merit."
The back-to-back news conferences by Mendte and Rosen capped a day that began with a 35-minute court proceeding that left Mendte at risk of a prison sentence after he acknowledged an almost obsessional practice of checking Lane's e-mail.
Mendte had plenty of support - about a dozen family members, including Stensland, lined the front row of the courtroom. Emerging from the courtroom, Stensland at first declined to comment, then leaned over to a reporter and said, "I love my husband, and he's a good man."
In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Levy recited the government's evidence in the case and said Mendte accessed Lane's e-mail more than 500 times in just the first five months of this year.
Levy said Mendte began looking at her e-mail in March 2006, and that information from her e-mail, including confidential communications with her lawyers, ended up in stories published by the Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Post.
"To your knowledge, is everything he said accurate and correct?" U.S. District Judge Mary A. McLaughlin then asked Mendte.
"Yes," he replied.
Mendte and Lane anchored CBS3's 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts until Dec. 14. Two days later, Lane was arrested in New York City and accused of hitting a police officer. She was fired in January. The charge was dismissed, and Rosen said the entire case will be expunged on Monday.
Mendte was fired in June, soon after FBI agents searched his Chestnut Hill home and computer files.
He now faces a possible prison sentence of up to six months under federal sentencing guidelines, as well as a fine of up to $250,000.
McLaughlin told Mendte that the sentence might be even more severe than called for under the guidelines, though she said she "will not even start thinking about" a possible sentence until a pre-sentence investigation has been completed.
McLaughlin scheduled sentencing for Nov. 24.
Under the plea agreement, federal prosecutors will make no recommendation on a sentence but will be free to "comment on the evidence and circumstances of the case," and outline all facts that would be relevant to sentencing.
"We will not make a specific recommendation as to what sentence the court should impose," Levy told the judge.
Defense attorney Michael A. Schwartz is expected to seek a probation sentence.
"Are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty as charged?" McLaughlin asked as Mendte formally pleaded guilty.
"Yes," he replied.
Levy also told McLaughlin that the government and the defense agreed that restitution should not be ordered because of the complexities involved in figuring an amount.
Instead, Levy told the judge, Lane, who has a civil suit pending against the station, would be free to seek a civil remedy.
Mendte seemed fairly at ease during the brief hearing, though he told the judge that he was "a little nervous, your honor, but I feel OK."
Mendte said he has "seen a therapist since this happened" and has been prescribed Ativan but rarely takes it.
Ativan is prescribed to manage anxiety disorders and relieve anxiety associated with depressive symptoms.
Rosen said that a decision on whether to add Mendte as a defendant in Lane's civil case would be postponed until after Mendte is sentenced.
"I do not intend to do anything at this time until I hear the judge's sentence," said Rosen, who said that he and Lane would then decide "what we're going to do regarding Larry and his employer."
Levy said he would have argued to a jury that Mendte was behind an anonymous letter sent to New York prosecutors as Lane and her lawyer discussed whether she should do community service to resolve the charge against her.
The letter was postmarked from Philadelphia on Jan. 29, and Mendte had accessed her e-mail account about 15 times between Jan. 25 and 28.
"The writer of the anonymous letter had to be aware of the suggestion for community service by the District Attorney's Office, and of Lane's resistance to the suggestion," Levy wrote in the memorandum.
At the late-afternoon news conference, Mendte appeared with Schwartz at the Pepper Hamilton law firm in Center City and said he was sorry for his actions.
He said Stensland found proof of his relationship with Lane on New Year's Day 2005 after reading e-mail he had left out on his desk - and he said he told her the truth.
After apologizing to Lane, Mendte said it was time to end the acrimony.
"I ask that this long, mutually self-destructive feud now end. We have both paid a high cost. And others have been hurt as well. I am sorry to all."