LANCASTER, Pa. — A former county coroner received probation Tuesday for giving newspaper reporters the password to a restricted 911 Web site, and the judge who handed down the sentence accused the journalists of violating their professional ethics.
Dr. Gary Kirchner, who left office at the end of last year, pleaded no contest Tuesday to two misdemeanor counts of obstruction of administration of law. He was sentenced to one year of nonreporting probation and was fined $500.
Lancaster County Judge Dennis Reinaker said Kirchner’s actions could have jeopardized criminal investigations. ‘‘This whole scenario does not represent your finest hour,’’ he said.
Kirchner was charged in February 2007 following a state investigation that included a search of six computer hard drives in the newsroom of the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal. Five Intelligencer Journal reporters testified before a grand jury after being granted immunity from prosecution.
The newspaper had attributed details in an August 2005 story about a woman’s death to the Lancaster County-Wide Communications Web site.
Kirchner’s attorney, Kurt Geishauser, said his 74-year-old client does not remember giving his password to any reporters.
However, Jonelle Harter Eshbach, a senior deputy attorney general, told the judge the state could prove that Kirchner gave his password to five Intelligencer Journal reporters. Forensic analysis showed that the reporters used the password ‘‘as many as 48 times’’ to log on to the Web site and were able to access confidential emergency communications information, she said.
Eshbach said giving reporters access to the site exposed personal information and may have compromised criminal investigations.
‘‘That Web site’s secure for a reason, a number of good reasons, and it needs to stay that way,’’ Eshbach said.
Kirchner, who said he is legally blind and has suffered from an acute blood infection, was in a wheelchair and had difficulty hearing and understanding the judge.
‘‘I can only say that this has probably been the worst year of my life,’’ he told Reinaker. He expressed relief that ‘‘this nightmare issue is coming to an end.’’
Reinaker called the reporters’ behavior ‘‘wholly inappropriate’’ and ‘‘a total breach of their ethical responsibility.’’
‘‘While immunity from prosecution in return for their testimony in this case may well have been necessary, it in no way mitigates their complicity in this criminal behavior,’’ the judge said.
Ray Shaw, editor of the Intelligencer Journal, said in a written statement issued after the hearing that Kirchner led reporters to believe they had authorization to use the Web site.
Shaw said none of the reporters sought immunity.
‘‘It was used by prosecutors to compel testimony,’’ Shaw wrote. ‘‘As lawful citizens, those subpoenaed had no choice but to comply.’’