Records of ‘vague’ FBI investigation not exempt from disclosure
WASHINGTON, D.C.–A panel of the federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. in late June rejected the FBI’s claims that a bureau investigation into an alleged obstruction of justice had a legitimate law enforcement purpose and was thus exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The court found that the filing of a pleading by a group of attorneys cannot alone form the basis for a legitimate obstruction of justice investigation. The FBI’s “vague” allusions to possible criminal activities by the attorneys did not justify the investigation and therefore the records of the investigation were not covered by FOIA’s law enforcement exemption, the court held.
The case began with the attempts on the part of several criminal trial lawyers in Florida to have the Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) disqualified from hearing the drug conviction appeal of drug lord Carlos Lehder.
After Lehder was convicted in District Court in 1991, his attorneys claimed he could not afford legal counsel on appeal and asked the court to appoint them. After a magistrate agreed to the appointment of counsel, Eleventh Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat suggested in a letter to his colleagues that Lehder’s attorney, Jose Quinon, had been overpaid at the outset of the case and criticized Quinon’s unwillingness to stay on the case through the appeal without a court appointment.
Tfjoflat’s letter was in turn criticized by the state bar, and Quinon filed a motion to have the Eleventh Circuit recused from hearing Lehder’s case, arguing that Tjoflat’s statements had tainted the Circuit’s ability to hear the case.
In 1991 the FBI launched an investigation into whether Quinon and two others had acted “in concert in an attempt to cause the entire Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to recuse themselves from the [Lehder] case.” The investigation was closed after only a month, and the Eleventh Circuit went on to hear the Lehder appeal.
The FBI refused Quinon’s FOI Act requests seeking records of the investigation into him, and Quinon sued. That suit culminated in the decision by the federal Court of Appeals that the records be disclosed. (Quinon v. FBI; Plaintiff’s Counsel: Ronald Massumi, Miami)