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Government responds to media in largely hidden El Paso case

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  1. Court Access
In response to a media group’s push for greater access to a sweeping public corruption investigation in El Paso, Texas,…

In response to a media group’s push for greater access to a sweeping public corruption investigation in El Paso, Texas, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas agreed Tuesday to make available some redacted transcripts, but opposed any broader order forcing transparency in the case.   

Nine defendants have so far pleaded guilty in the course of a four-year investigation that has involved dozens of local lawyers, elected officials and others, and the government pointed out that the court had already unsealed some documents from those hearings. The El Paso Media Group, which publishes The Newspaper Tree online, filed a motion to intervene last month asking the court to unseal more documents, put hearings on the public docket and explain the secrecy behind the investigation.  

U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo ordered the U.S. Attorney’s Office to respond by Sept. 5. The government claimed the media’s request is moot, pointing to two guilty pleas whose underlying proceedings were open — one in 2005 and another this summer. The government argued that Montalvo should not rule on the openness of future proceedings because they have not yet occurred, and the two open hearings show that the court is not categorically closing the case.  

The case dates back to the summer of 2004 when the FBI opened its investigation into corruption charges involving, over time, 80 people of interest, months of wiretap surveillance and search and seizure warrants that recovered thousands of dollars. Most of the investigation and prosecution unfolded under the radar until local El Paso activist Carl Starr filed a motion in March pushing for more details of the probe. Montalvo denied his request but issued a lengthy opinion describing the scope of the inquiry.  

The Media Group filed its motion in August, hoping for a more favorable outcome. Newspaper Tree Reporter David Crowder said he expects the judge to make a decision in the next two weeks.  Crowder also said even if the judge sides with the U.S. Attorney’s Office there is the possibility of “significant concessions.”

One point to watch for is whether Montalvo will address a footnote buried in the U.S. Attorney’s response where it asserts that it did not ask for closure at the plea hearings, despite Montalvo’s statement in his Aug. 6 order that the U.S. Attorney’s office had requested closure.