A Baton Rouge judge has ordered Attorney General Jeff Landry to release public records related to a sexual harassment investigation of one of his top aides, in an unusual lawsuit in which Landry sued a reporter for seeking the records.
Judge Tim Kelley of the 19th Judicial District ruled in favor of The Advocate | Times-Picayune reporter Andrea Gallo on Thursday, saying that he would release the relevant records after making redactions that might identify witnesses, victims or "bystanders." The records relate to complaints filed against Pat Magee, head of the office’s criminal division, whom Landry disciplined in January after the complaints were investigated by an outside law firm, Taylor Porter.
Landry sued Gallo on Feb. 5, almost two months after she filed a request under Louisiana's public records law seeking the records of complaints about Magee as well as records showing how those complaints were resolved.
Landry's unusual "reverse" lawsuit attracted national attention, prompting a story in The Washington Post and a critical statement from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. A number of other media organizations and institutions also filed amicus briefs supporting the newspaper, including The Lens, Gray Media Group, the Louisiana Press Association and Tulane Law School's First Amendment Clinic.
In addition to releasing the records, Kelley ordered the AG's office -- and thus taxpayers -- to pay reasonable attorney's fees of $5,625 to Scott Sternberg, who represented Gallo. The judge rejected a request from Sternberg to find that Landry's office had acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner and assess a fine of $100 per day going back to Dec. 14, the day Gallo filed her records request.
Investigative reporting like this is more essential than ever. And it’s more expensive too. To fuel deep reporting like this, we’ve established a non-profit supported by readers like you.
Kelley's ruling came after a roughly two-hour hearing, at which Alicia Wheeler, representing Landry, argued that the attorney general was not trying to get in the way of the public's right to know, or to attack the free press. Wheeler said the office's lawyers determined that much of the information Gallo sought was protected by a constitutional right to privacy.
Wheeler also argued that if complaints filed by government employees were subject to public disclosure, it would have a "chilling effect" on workers' willingness to file them.
Sternberg countered that what dampens employees' willingness to file such complaints is the feeling that their bosses and other higher-ups are not being held accountable. The newspaper's inquiry, he said, is aimed at helping the public to understand whether the Magee situation was handled properly.
Kelley agreed. "It is paramount that the public have trust that our government is transparent," he said. "And thus, the process of the investigation into this matter would require that the public know what all of the allegations were, and to balance that in their minds against what the authority in charge ... whoever makes the decision on discipline, whether that was an appropriate decision given the circumstances."
Magee was placed on administrative leave on Dec. 14. He returned to work in January; he has been ordered to attend training sessions on leadership, professionalism and conflict management and had his pay docked by $20,559.
Landry's office initially told Gallo it planned to provide the requested records, and then said it would not, citing privacy provisions.
The newspaper suggested redacting names and other information that might identify victims or witnesses, but said that the office had to turn over the records, and threatened a lawsuit.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s unusual lawsuit against a reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune who sought public records …
Landry opted to sue first, seeking a declaratory judgment to make the records off-limits. He also asked that court records in the matter be sealed and that Gallo be assessed fees.
As the hearing got underway, Wheeler abandoned the effort to seal the proceedings, which were held virtually and watched by dozens of people. Instead, she requested that names of any witnesses or victims who might have complained about Magee not be uttered aloud. Both sides agreed.
Still left unsettled Thursday was the resolution of whether Gallo is entitled to another set of documents she requested. The document that Kelley ruled Thursday must be made public was described as a "raw" written complaint about Magee.
But Gallo also sought records related to how the investigation was handled -- which might include things like records of interviews with witnesses, victims and other personnel and perhaps a summary of the investigation's findings.
Gallo has not received a response from Landry's office regarding those materials. But other people who requested them have gotten responses saying the office does not have the records. Rather, Taylor Porter, the firm Landry hired to handle the Magee matter, has them, the office's public records coordinator, Asyl Nachabe, has written to requestors.
"These documents are protected by the attorney-client and work product privileges as well as right to privacy," Nachabe wrote. "Additionally, we reserve the right to assert additional exemptions after reviewing the document.”
The only document Landry's office has been willing to make public so far is a brief summary of Taylor Porter's conclusions and the discipline meted out to Magee.
Attorney General Jeff Landry’s lawsuit targeting a reporter for The Times-Picayune and The Advocate who filed a public-records request seeking…
Peter Kovacs, editor of the newspaper, which paid for Gallo's defense, hailed Kelley's decision.
"Private citizens should not fear a lawsuit every time they ask a powerful politician for public records they are entitled to under the Louisiana Constitution," Kovacs said. "So we are pleased with Judge Kelley’s ruling that the sexual harassment complaint filed against one of Attorney General Jeff Landry’s key leaders is indeed a public record, and for the judge’s decision to make Mr. Landry’s office pay legal fees for the defense of the suit.
"The losers are the Louisiana taxpayers, who will foot the bill for the plaintiff and the defendant in Mr. Landry’s unnecessary legal assault against Andrea Gallo."
Sternberg also applauded the ruling and said the lawsuit was unnecessary.
"The judge got this one absolutely right," he said. "The attorney general could have simply redacted the names of the victims and released this document to us. The public has a great interest in the conduct of a high-ranking official like Mr. Magee."
Sternberg noted that all citizens are entitled to public records, but not all of them have the means to hire lawyers. He said he hopes Kelley's ruling will discourage other governmental bodies from filing copycat suits.
"The attorney general set a dangerous precedent by suing a requestor, and fortunately the judge ensured he paid for it," he said. "It is my sincere hope that the legislature and public officials take note."
Landry's office issued a statement after the ruling noting that Kelley had found the attorney general had "followed the letter of the law" in its responses to Gallo. The office does not plan to appeal, a Landry spokesman said.
DONATE TODAY TO THE LOUISIANA INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM FUND
Can't see form below? Click here.
This is a developing story. Check back for more updates.