Journalists group protests sealing of court records in D.C. campaign probe

March 25, 2013

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is protesting the complete sealing of an appeals court case involving the ongoing investigation into D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign.

The case involves a dispute over some of the records seized during federal raids on the home and offices of Jeffrey E. Thompson last March. Thompson, a D.C. businessman, is alleged to have financed a “shadow campaign” for Gray (D) that was not disclosed as required by election laws.

A ruling this month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit allows federal prosecutors to examine millions of pages of seized documents and electronic records. Thompson had objected to the government’s system for weeding out sensitive information.

The online docket for the case shows that Thompson’s appeal was dismissed, but the briefs and opinion are sealed. The oral arguments also were closed to the public. It was unclear Monday whether a process for issuing a redacted opinion is underway.

A lower court ruling in the case was made public last May after U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth solicited proposed redactions from the government and Thompson’s attorneys.

In its letter to the clerk of the appeals court on Friday, the nonprofit journalists group questioned the need for complete secrecy when the lower court opinion is public and has been reported on by news organizations, including The Washington Post and the National Law Journal.

“Secrecy is not unyielding where there is no secrecy left to protect,” Bruce D. Brown, the group’s executive director, wrote, quoting from one of the court’s previous rulings.

If a redaction process is not ongoing, the group, which provides free legal advice to journalists, asked in its letter for a court order justifying the sealing of the case. “In the absence of such an order, the public has no meaningful ability to evaluate the adequacy of the reasons for secrecy and (if appropriate) challenge it,” the committee said.

The court’s chief deputy clerk, Marilyn Sargent, said Monday that the judges are “fully aware of the concerns of the media about this,” but she could not comment on whether a redaction process is underway.

Lamberth’s ruling first disclosed that more than 60 boxes of records were seized from Thompson. His attorneys wanted to review the documents — some of which are protected by various privileges — before the U.S. attorney’s office looked at them. Lamberth ruled that federal prosecutors could set up an independent screening team to review the records.

Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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