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La. Attorney General Jeff Landry, pictured here at a Republican rally at the Cajundome in 2019.

Attorney General Jeff Landry’s lawsuit targeting a reporter for The Times-Picayune and The Advocate who filed a public-records request seeking information about Landry’s office is an “unfortunate example that likely will encourage egregious behavior” by other public bodies, Louisiana’s leading good-government group said in a deeply critical commentary released Thursday.

The unusual lawsuit, filed Friday, asks a state judge to declare that reporter Andrea Gallo is not entitled to the records she requested – any sexual harassment complaints filed against Pat Magee, the head of the criminal division of the Attorney General’s Office, as well as records showing how the complaints were investigated and resolved. The suit also asks that the matter be sealed, and that Gallo be ordered to bear all costs of the proceeding.

Such suits are rare but not unknown. The Public Affairs Research Council’s commentary notes that the city of Monroe and the city of Tallulah have both sued reporters over public records requests.

But Landry’s decision to sue Gallo is especially unfortunate, PAR argues, because he is “the state’s leading lawyer and advisor to state and local agencies regarding public records.”

Given the office’s lofty status, other governmental bodies may be emboldened to follow suit, especially in cases where public disclosure might reveal some misbehavior.

“The problem is not hard to imagine: Each time a citizen seeks public documents that might make a local or state public official uncomfortable or embarrassed, that citizen would be met by a lawsuit to suppress their constitutional right to public access,” PAR wrote.

While Gallo is being represented by lawyer Scott Sternberg, who represents the newspaper in many First Amendment matters, other members of the public don’t enjoy such protections, the commentary says.

As a result, the commentary argues, such lawsuits are likely to deter citizens from seeking information they are entitled to.

So-called “reverse” lawsuits against members of the public “are used to prevent disclosure and discourage the filing of freedom-of-information requests,” PAR wrote. “The action is a threat because it can serve as a deterrent to filing requests and can be more costly to the petitioner. The citizen is confronted with a lawsuit – along with its delays and expenses – just for exercising a constitutional right to obtain information.”

Landry’s suit has been assigned to 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley.

The suit has its roots in a Dec. 14 request from Gallo, seeking records related to Magee.

Landry’s office announced on Jan. 19 that an investigation into allegations against Magee had found that he had “engaged in inappropriate verbal conversations” that included sexual slang and unprofessional comments about the appearance of some employees. The investigation, conducted by Vicki Crochet, a private attorney hired by Landry, concluded that while Magee had made some employees uncomfortable, he had not inappropriately touched anyone, sought sexual favors or made other sexual overtures.

Magee’s pay was docked by $20,559 and he was ordered to undergo counseling, Landry’s office said.

While the AG’s office initially indicated it planned to release more documents relevant to the case, such as any complaints that led to the probe, it then changed its tune. Landry’s lawyers argued that parties to the case had a constitutional right to privacy; they also pointed to internal policies that call for such matters to be handled confidentially.

PAR’s commentary takes no position on whether the records sought by the newspaper are public, saying that is a matter for the courts to decide.

But it argues that Landry should “regret” the suit and advise other governmental bodies that such reverse suits are “bad policy and not in the best interests of open government and citizen rights.” The commentary also urges Gov. John Bel Edwards, a frequent Landry adversary, to tell agencies in the executive branch to avoid such suits.

Landry’s lawsuit against Gallo has attracted national attention, including a story in the Washington Post. Earlier this week, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a national nonprofit, criticized Landry’s lawsuit, saying it goes “against the spirit of Louisiana’s public records law,” and adding that such efforts “only serve to intimidate members of the press and public who ask questions about what their government is doing and how.”

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.