A long-simmering federal inquiry into public corruption in El Paso, Tex. has apparently yielded nine guilty pleas so far. Local attorneys, elected officials and judges have been swept up in the probe. Dozens of search warrants have been served, thousands of dollars seized.
Wiretap surveillance alone lasted two years.
And yet the people of El Paso know surprisingly little about this scandal and its 80 "persons of interest." U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo has sealed the case, wiped it off the dockets, closed hearings and taken guilty pleas in secret.
When pressed for openness, Montalvo replied in a written opinion, "The public should trust the system, because the procedures in place have withstood the test of time."
El Paso Media Group, which publishes The Newspaper Tree online, stepped in Wednesday with a motion pressing for the full airing of court files and hearings in United States v. John Travis Ketner.
"Sort of amazed. Stunned," attorney Jim Harrington, who represents the media group, said of his reaction when he first learned about the case. "You hear of courts from time to time doing stuff, but in a limited fashion…Using the justification the judge used here, you could shut down virtually every case in the country."
Specifically, Montalvo has said the case is closed to protect witnesses and the integrity of the ongoing investigation.
Harrington, of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the Ketner case is ripe for fostering the kind of suspicion about the criminal justice system that transparency is designed to avoid: it’s a corruption probe, and no grand jury has heard the government’s evidence.
Ketner himself is an attorney whose guilty plea last year — on bribery and wire fraud charges — was the first to seep out to the public. Like the others that followed, his plea hearing was held off the dockets. The transcript and details of the deal were sealed.
A local activist in the legal community, Carl Starr, first stumbled upon the case and filed a motion in March seeking to open it, Harrington said. Montalvo unveiled a few documents in response but would not budge on the overall secrecy.
Harrington hopes a news media request will carry more weight in the courtroom.
In the motion filed Wednesday, the El Paso Media Group seeks access to all court documents and hearings, as well as a date in front of the judge to address the pattern of secrecy. The motion says Montalvo has effectively implemented a gag order, something akin to a prior restraint, on the news media in barring them so totally from the case. Reporters have been denied even the chance to contest the judge’s orders, it says.
Rather than abiding by the accepted legal standards for shutting off court access – that closure be narrowly tailored to suit the needs of the case, and that clear reasons for it be given – the motion alleges that Montalvo has turned to the public and said, “Trust me.”
“The very essence of the American democracy and its watch guard, the press, is to keep the system honest and transparent;” the motion says. “Trust me’ doesn’t work, and hasn’t worked in history."
By Thursday, Montalvo had given the government until Sept. 5 to respond to the media group.