A week after the Danziger Bridge case wrapped up with a quintet of guilty pleas, an attorney for one of the convicted former officers has filed a motion seeking to open all sealed pleadings in the case, including affidavits from senior U.S. Justice Department officials about their knowledge and handling of an online commenting scandal that erupted in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2012.
The motion by lawyer Timothy Meche, who represents former Officer Anthony Villavaso, was not opposed by U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office.
That would seem to clear the path for U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt to open to public scrutiny the dozens of sealed pleadings in the controversial, long-running case, which became entwined with the mostly unrelated commenting scandal.
Meche’s motion notes that at the April 20 sentencing hearing for the five officers, Engelhardt made direct reference to several sealed affidavits, increasing the public appetite for viewing them in their entirety.
“Since this case is concluded, and since there is a public interest in knowing the contents of those documents, the documents should be unsealed immediately,” Meche wrote.
At Engelhardt’s urging, the Justice Department in 2012 assigned a special prosecutor, John Horn, to assess the extent of misconduct at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans after it emerged that two top aides to then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten had been posting comments about targets of federal investigations under false names.
Horn filed a report with the court in March 2013 and a second one sometime after that. His reports have remained under seal ever since, though Engelhardt has quoted from them in various orders and opinions.
It’s not clear whether the Horn reports themselves would be unsealed were Engelhardt to grant Meche’s motion. In part, that question may rest on whether those reports were ever filed under seal as items on the Danziger docket.
Meche also is seeking to make public sworn affidavits filed by other government officials in connection with the Horn probe, including those from lead prosecutor Barbara “Bobbi” Bernstein; Roy Austin Jr., now a White House adviser; and Thomas Perez, now the secretary of labor.
Austin and Perez formerly had senior positions in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
According to Engelhardt, Austin signed an affidavit saying Bernstein had told him that another Justice official, Karla Dobinski, had been posting anonymous comments under stories at nola.com.
Austin’s affidavit says he told Bernstein — who wanted to know if she should tell the judge — that “she should not make any notifications” about the information. Rather — according to the judge — Austin said Horn and another prosecutor were responsible for rooting out such information.
Engelhardt strongly criticized Bernstein for not telling him what she knew.
During last week’s proceedings, Engelhardt also said he sought affidavits from Horn and a second special prosecutor, Charysse Alexander, asking them to reveal when and how they became aware of Dobinski’s commenting.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.