James Gill: Ray Nagin’s creative legal argument suggests he should have retrial _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- Former mayor C. Ray Nagin leaves court with his wife Seletha Nagin and attorney Robert Jenkins after being found guilty on 20 of 21 counts in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.

The Advocate on Monday filed a court motion asking that various pleadings be unsealed in a case believed to involve a key witness in the prosecution of former Mayor Ray Nagin.

The matter is before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The newspaper’s filing states that the sealed matter before the appellate court “may concern” a petition for writ of mandamus originating from the government’s case against Frank Fradella, a convicted businessman who bribed Nagin and then served as one of the lead witnesses against the former mayor in his 2014 trial.

But determining such basic information is impossible because the entirety of the case is under seal at the appellate level. On the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, or PACER, the case is listed simply as “In re: Sealed Petitioner” — meaning it’s impossible to know even the names of the parties to the dispute.

Nothing else about the case is public. “PACER contains no information about what documents (or proceedings) are sealed, why any such documents (or proceedings) are sealed, or even what about any such documents (or proceedings) generally concern,” the newspaper’s motion, by lawyers Scott Keaty and Jennifer Hataway, says in part. “Such an absolute, blanket denial of access to all documents and proceedings in this matter violates the fundamental First Amendment and common law rights of access to court records and proceedings possessed by the public and the press. The Advocate, on behalf of the public and the press, therefore seeks to intervene in this matter to protect and exercise these inalienable Constitutional and common law rights of access.”

The newspaper’s filing cites U.S. v. Moussaoui, in which members of the media were permitted by a federal appeals court to view various aspects of the government’s case against an accused al-Qaida operative that had initially been kept secret.

Fradella, who pleaded guilty to a count of conspiracy to commit bribery and one count of false certification of financial reports, was sentenced in February to one year in prison by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan. He had faced up to five years.

Fradella was ordered to surrender to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons within 60 days, although records show he is not in custody yet.

Fradella’s case at the district level is available to the public, at least partially, in the PACER system. However, numerous docket entries in that file are also hidden: A number of entries are marked as sealed, and at least two dozen item numbers are simply not visible in the file.

Nagin began a 10-year prison sentence in September for his conviction on 20 counts of bribery, money laundering and tax evasion.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.