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Court unseals more documents in secret El Paso corruption case

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  1. Court Access
A federal court on Thursday denied a newspaper’s request to intervene and unseal records in a sweeping corruption investigation in El Paso, Tex.,…

A federal court on Thursday denied a newspaper’s request to intervene and unseal records in a sweeping corruption investigation in El Paso, Tex., but agreed to unseal some of the documents in redacted form.

Federal District Judge Frank Montalvo issued a 37-page ruling that denied El Paso Media Group’s motion to intervene in the long-running public corruption investigation for the purpose of challenging the blanket secrecy that has characterized the case, United States v. Ketner. So far the inquiry has included more than 80 "persons of interest," including dozens of El Paso public officials and three current or former judges.  

Montalvo did make clear that the press had a right to challenge the sealing of court records and closing of hearings, writing that he must “balance countervailing concerns with the press and the public’s right of access to judicial proceedings.” Montalvo rejected the argument put forth by the government in its response to the media group that the request could not be decided at this time because the closure issue was both moot and unripe, or not ready for review.

The court found that, because of the risk that the government might ask the court to close future proceedings, the issue of public access to the case “presents a controversy capable of repetition but evading review.”  

Ultimately, the court concluded that the compelling interest in protecting an on-going investigation justified limiting public access to the criminal proceedings. At the same time, the court granted a separate request from the U.S. Attorney’s office to unseal redacted transcripts from the closed hearings of eight defendants who pleaded guilty to public corruption charges.  

The ruling also addressed a puzzling issue — whether the government had asked the court to close the plea hearings in the first place. In an earlier order, Montalvo said the prosecution and defense teams had jointly requested secrecy during plea hearings, and that “on most if not all occasions, the Government made an oral motion at each plea hearing for closure of the proceedings and sealing of records, without objection from defense counsel.”

The government disagreed with this characterization in its next filing, saying a "review of the transcripts of the eight closed plea hearings reflects the government made no such motions.”

In Thursday’s opinion, Montalvo replied, “While this is true, the Court notes counsel for the Government and the Defendant met in chambers prior to each plea hearing,” and the compelling interests discussed in those meetings led the court to close proceedings.