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Herald loses bid for access to convicted FBI agent's records

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         MASSACHUSETTS         Secret Courts         Jul 3, 2002    

Herald loses bid for access to convicted FBI agent’s records

  • A judge said privacy concerns prevent him from granting a newspaper’s request for access to documents from a high-profile case involving a former FBI agent securing a court-appointed attorney after running out of money.

A federal magistrate judge on June 24 denied the Boston Herald‘s request for access to court records concerning a former FBI agent’s financial resources due to privacy concerns.

The Boston Herald filed a motion with the U.S. District Court in Boston, requesting that the court unseal documents pertaining to John Connolly Jr.’s financial ability to afford the counsel he had retained.

Connolly, a former FBI agent known for helping to bring about convictions in the New England mafia, was convicted May 28 of several charges including racketeering, lying to the FBI and accepting bribes. During his trial, Connolly requested court-appointed counsel, saying he had exhausted his funds in paying the counsel he had retained. After receiving the documents at issue in the case, the court appointed Connolly his same counsel to continue his defense.

Connolly’s financial documents were placed under seal by federal magistrate Robert B. Collings pursuant to the courts’ judicial policies and procedures guide. The federal Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the judicial branch or requests for records pertaining to activities under the Criminal Justice Act. But the court rules allow the information to be made available to the public unless it is placed under seal by a judge.

The Herald argued that the First Amendment and federal common law give it a right of access to the documents. Collings dismissed those arguments as “meritless” and declined to unseal the documents because “the intrusion on the privacy of the defendant and that of his family if the documents were released would be as substantial now as it was when the sealing orders were entered.”

Herald attorney Robert Dushman said he was disappointed that Collings did not consider less restrictive alternatives in his ruling, such as redacting intrusive information before making the records available to the public.

Dushman questioned Collings’ justification for keeping the records sealed to protect Connolly’s privacy, since the same type of records are generally made available to the public. He said that if the mere fact a document contained private financial information was enough to justify sealing it, then the records would always be sealed.

“Connolly has no more of a right to privacy than anyone else, even more or less so because he is a public figure,” Dushman said.

Dusham said the Herald is still considering whether it will appeal Collings’ ruling.

(U.S. v. Connolly; Media counsel: Robert Dushman, Boston) JLW

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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