Leslie Ricard Chambers (copy)

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry speaks with The Times-Picayune's editorial board in this February 2017 file photo.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s unusual lawsuit against a reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune who sought public records related to a sexual harassment investigation of one of Landry’s top aides is set to be heard in a Baton Rouge courtroom Thursday.

Landry sued reporter Andrea Gallo on Feb. 5, almost two months after she filed a request to the AG’s office seeking the records of an investigation into Pat Magee, head of the office’s criminal division. The suit has attracted national attention, prompting a story in the Washington Post and a critical statement from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The case is set to be heard by 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley.

The saga dates to Dec. 14, when Gallo asked for records of any sexual harassment complaints filed against Magee, as well as any records showing how those complaints were handled. Magee was placed on administrative leave the same day.

Landry’s public records coordinator, Asyl Nachabe, wrote Gallo back in early January to say the office could not provide the records immediately because they were in use, and that records of internal investigations do not become public until after the investigations are over. Nachabe also wrote that “the exemptions are temporary and not permanent and we will make the appropriate documents available once the investigation is over.”

By that time, Landry’s office had contracted with Vicki Crochet of the law firm Taylor Porter to handle the probe into Magee’s behavior, at a cost not to exceed $20,000.

Magee came back to work Jan. 19 after that investigation was complete. But despite the earlier assurances, Landry’s office announced that neither Crochet’s report nor any of the complaints against Magee would be released.

Instead, Landry simply said that Magee had “engaged in inappropriate verbal conversations,” used sexual slang and made other unprofessional remarks over employees’ looks. Magee’s pay was docked $20,559 and he was ordered to take courses on workplace behavior.

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Landry’s lawyers said they were going to keep the complaints against Magee secret because of a constitutional right to privacy, as well as policies of Landry’s office and state civil service rules that call for confidentiality in sexual harassment investigations.

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. Landry then sued, seeking a declaratory judgment declaring the records off-limits, sealing court records in the matter and forcing Gallo to pay fees.

The newspaper filed a counterclaim this week saying that Landry should be forced to turn over the relevant documents, with names redacted if necessary. Scott Sternberg, the newspaper’s lawyer, also asked Kelley to assess Landry attorneys’ fees, plus penalties of $100 per day dating back to Dec. 14. The newspaper also argued that the proceedings should not be sealed.

Landry’s lawsuit has drawn widespread criticism, including from the Public Affairs Research Council, a good-government group. In a strongly worded commentary, PAR expressed concern that a lawsuit by the state’s top law enforcement officer would send a message to governmental entities across the state that it is acceptable to file such pre-emptive lawsuits to avoid disclosing potentially embarrassing facts.

On Monday, a consortium of other media organizations, including The Lens, Gray Media Group, the Louisiana Press Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of The Advocate and The Times-Picayune.

Landry is not the first Louisiana official to file such a lawsuit, but he is the most prominent. Sternberg has also represented reporters and citizens in two similar cases filed by government bodies in the Monroe area.

Investigative reporting is more essential than ever, which is why we’ve established the Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund, a non-profit supported by our readers.

To learn more, please click here.