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Reporters Committee urges courts to unseal mystery case tied to Mueller investigation

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  1. Court Access

An investigation into potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has put discussions about court access front and center.

Sealed court documents and a sealed oral argument connected to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe prompted the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to challenge the extreme and unusual secrecy in the case, which has made its way from D.C. federal district court to the nation’s highest court.

Late last year, the public learned about a mystery company that had been subpoenaed to testify as a witness before a grand jury that many speculated was tied to the Mueller investigation. The company refused to comply with the grand jury subpoena and appealed the district court’s ruling holding it in contempt and imposing substantial fines as a result of that refusal. The case began in August 2018 but remains sealed.

The Reporters Committee filed motions with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court requesting to intervene and get access to the court records. These efforts revealed information confirming the law firm representing the company is Alston & Bird LLP. The Supreme Court denied the Reporters Committee’s motion to intervene but only after the government agreed that redacted versions of filed briefs could be made public.

Below is a full timeline of the Reporters Committee’s efforts and what we’ve learned so far:

December 2018

On December 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments in a sealed grand jury case. While not confirmed at the time, the case was thought to be connected to the Mueller investigation. Before the proceedings began, it appeared they would be public. But instead, the entire floor of the D.C. Circuit was sealed off for over an hour, and no one was allowed entry. The attorneys and parties involved weren’t listed on the court docket, and no documents were available to the public.

A redacted decision from the D.C. Circuit released to the public revealed that an unidentified foreign company, referred to as “Corporation A” that was owned by “Country A,” had appealed a grand jury subpoena it received in September. Because only a redacted version of this ruling was available to the public, key information — including the parties involved — was kept secret.

The redacted ruling showed that Corporation A believed it was not required to provide information to a grand jury, nor that it should pay the $50,000 per day fine imposed by the district court for refusing to comply with the subpoena. No further information was released about the identity of Corporation A or its location. Even the names of its attorneys were concealed.

Corporation A argued it is entitled to sovereign immunity and complying with the subpoena would violate Country A’s laws. Corporation A appealed the D.C. Circuit’s decision to the United States Supreme Court.

January 2019

On January 8, the Supreme Court declined to review Corporation A’s case, meaning Corporation A would either have to provide information to the grand jury or pay fines.

The next day, the Reporters Committee filed motions to unseal the briefs, records and oral argument transcripts presented during the case in both the D.C. Circuit Court and the Supreme Court.

On January 25, the government filed a response to the Reporters Committee’s motion to unseal certain materials from the proceedings, agreeing with the Reporters Committee’s argument that the public should have access to records in the case, but ultimately arguing that the Reporters Committee shouldn’t be allowed to intervene.

The Reporters Committee, in a reply filed three days later, argued that even though the government agreed materials should be unsealed, its motion to intervene should still be granted.

A few days after the government filed its response motion, the federal district court released a heavily redacted docket of the proceedings. The following day, on January 31, it released a less redacted version that confirmed the case was connected to the Mueller investigation by revealing that Scott Meisler and Zainab Ahmad, both attorneys from Mueller’s office, are acting on behalf of the special counsel’s office in the case.

February 2019

On February 1, Corporation A’s response to the Reporters Committee’s motion to unseal was made public, revealing that the company took no position on the motion. The response had been filed on January 16. In a reply, Reporters Committee attorneys argued that because Corporation A, the witness held in contempt, stated no interest in maintaining secrecy, its identity should be unsealed.

A subsequent order from the D.C. Circuit released the following documents that were previously sealed:

  • The Reporters Committee’s February 4 reply to Corporation A’s January 16 filing.
  • The government’s February 5 response to the Reporters Committee’s motion to unseal.
  • The Reporters Committee’s February 6 reply to the government’s response, further supporting its motion to unseal.
  • The government’s February 6 motion to unseal certain materials.

On February 13, the D.C. Circuit Court issued another order unsealing even more materials, including the aforementioned motions filed by both the government and the Reporters Committee, and the Reporters Committee’s January 28 filing. This order also requires Corporation A to file a sealed copy of their opening reply and briefs with proposed redactions by February 22.

On February 19, the Supreme Court granted the government’s request to file redacted copies of briefs that were previously sealed. This means the public could potentially get more information about the nature of the case. Despite this, the Supreme Court denied the Reporters Committee’s motion to intervene.

March 2019

On March 27, Reporters Committee attorneys, Corporation A’s attorneys, and federal attorneys attended a D.C. District Court hearing for Chief Judge Beryl Howell’s ruling on the Reporters Committee’s request to release redacted versions of briefs, transcripts, and records in the case. The request also asked for the identity of Corporation A to be revealed.

Judge Howell ruled partly in the Reporters Committee’s favor, indicating the redacted briefs — and possibly the transcripts — could be unsealed. A memorandum of the judge’s ruling will come at a later date, and she’s expected to give federal attorneys time to redact the documents. Judge Howell also indicated at the hearing that she would consider the Reporters Committee’s request to make the identity of the mystery company public.

Attorneys representing Corporation A said the company does not want to be identified and declined to explain why during the public hearing.

During the hearing, a federal attorney said the grand jury investigation was still “continuing robustly,” despite the fact that Mueller’s investigation had since concluded. There’s a greater chance the identity of Corporation A could be revealed after the investigation is closed, since some grand jury material can be protected from disclosure if the proceedings are ongoing.

April 2019

On April 1, Judge Howell partially granted the Reporters Committee’s request. Redacted briefs and transcripts will be made public pending the government’s and Corporation A’s proposed redactions, which are due on May 1. Judge Howell denied “at this time” the Reporters Committee’s request to reveal the identity of Corporation A because the grand jury investigation is still ongoing.

On April 23, the D.C. Circuit issued an order stating that it would also release redacted briefs and transcripts pending the government’s and Corporation A’s proposed redactions. Like the district court, the D.C. Circuit also continued to hold that Corporation A’s identity should remain sealed because the case is still open and therefore remains subject to secrecy rules that govern grand juries.

The D.C. Circuit’s April 23 order specifically instructed the government to propose redactions to its briefs arguing the company’s name should remain secret.

The court also ordered that the government propose redactions to the transcript of oral arguments in the case conducted ex parte — meaning without counsel for Company A present —  or provide its reasoning for keeping it sealed entirely.

The three-judge panel indicated that they may release more information than Corporation A and the government proposed, stating that there was additional information that could be revealed without disclosing protected matters before the grand jury.

June 2019

On June 7, the D.C. Circuit Court ordered the release of additional documents, including redacted versions of the merits brief, oral argument transcript and record.

According to the order, the government did, in fact, provide cause for why some portions of the documents are to remain sealed. The government said they generally do not oppose unsealing, but in this case, requested that two categories of the information remain under seal while the investigation remained open. The court, satisfied with the explanation, ordered the government to publicly file its proposed redacted briefs and transcripts.

The government was also instructed by the court to propose redactions to the transcript from the oral argument conducted without Company A’s counsel present by July 12.

On the same day (June 7), the D.C. District Court also issued an order that unsealed many of the documents filed with the court, including the docket and the joint report, and ordered that those documents, although still heavily redacted, be publicly posted to the court’s website.

As this case progresses, the Reporters Committee will continue to update this timeline. Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.