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Times insider: A Good Week for Challenging Secrecy

Times insider: A Good Week for Challenging Secrecy

Times insider

Over the course of a week, The Times’s lawyers were unusually successful in helping reporters gain access to court documents, closed proceedings and government agency files.

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On Friday, The Times’s legal team filed its latest request to access the affidavits used by the F.B.I. to obtain search warrants in the criminal case against Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer. Above, members of the news media waited outside the Loews Regency Hotel in New York on April 9, after Mr. Cohen’s room there had been raided.CreditCreditDon Emmert/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.

The Times’s legal department plays various roles in the Times newsroom, from prepublication review of stories to overseeing libel litigation, but an essential one is challenging secrecy in the courts and bringing litigation aimed at getting reporters access to government documents. A recent seven-day period serves as a snapshot of that work.

During this short time span, lawyers for The Times were involved in six motions to unseal court records, won the release of hundreds of pages of documents in a case against the C.I.A. and began work on an appellate argument in a long-running dispute over secret Justice Department documents on the interrogation of terrorism suspects.

EL CHAPO TRIAL

Last Tuesday, a federal judge in Brooklyn ruled in favor of The Times in the trial of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Mr. Guzman, the former head of the Sinaloa cartel, is accused of overseeing a massive drug-trafficking enterprise and conspiring in the murder of cartel enemies. The judge had initially wanted to hold jury selection in chambers and out of view of the news media, believing that a closed session would encourage the would-be jurors to be candid. In early October, the Times lawyers David McCraw and Al-Amyn Sumar challenged the plan on First Amendment grounds. In response, the judge reconsidered his position. While stopping short of granting full public access, he ruled that jury selection would be held in the courtroom with five reporters present to watch.

SECRET C.I.A. DOCUMENTS

The Times’s legal department sued the C.I.A. earlier this year for withholding documents about a particularly controversial episode in the agency’s history: a secret mind-control experiment in which C.I.A. employees were covertly given LSD. The suit, brought on behalf of its reporter Scott Shane, is one of nine Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by The Times against agencies of the federal government. On Wednesday, the C.I.A. finally released hundreds of pages of documents. They deal with the mysterious death in 1953 of Frank Olson, an agency employee and a subject of the LSD experiment. Mr. Olson died in a fall from a New York hotel. The C.I.A. claimed it was a suicide; the Olson family has accused the agency of murder.

SEALED COURT FILE IN PITTSBURGH SHOOTING CASE

On Thursday afternoon, prosecutors in Pittsburgh raced into court to seal the criminal files of the father of the accused synagogue gunman Robert Bowers; the court quickly granted the request. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reached out to The Times, asking it to join in its effort to undo the sealing. The Times’s legal department worked with the Post-Gazette’s lawyers late into the night Thursday so an emergency motion could be filed Friday morning.

By early afternoon, the court reversed its own decision and ordered the files released. Soon after, the materials were in the hands of reporters.

SEALED FILES IN FEDERAL CASES

Later on Friday, The Times’s legal department filed its latest motion to access files in the criminal case against Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer. In October, The Times petitioned the court to unseal the affidavits that the F.B.I. had used to obtain warrants to search Mr. Cohen’s phones, offices, hotel room and residence in April. The Times argued that the materials should be made public now that Mr. Cohen has pleaded guilty. The Times’s filing prompted several other news outlets to bring their own motions for unsealing.

Also on Friday, the legal department filed a motion in federal court to unseal critical documents in a civil rights lawsuit.

And in a third case, The Times on Monday won the unsealing of an exhibit in a high-profile criminal trial in Manhattan.

TRANSCRIPT OF PLEA HEARING FOR EX-GOLDMAN SACHS EMPLOYEE

Also this week, The Times’s lawyers asked a federal court in Brooklyn to unseal the transcript of a plea hearing in which a former Goldman Sachs employee pleaded guilty to a bribery and money laundering scheme that siphoned billions of dollars from a Malaysian state-run investment fund.

Last week, prosecutors revealed that they had obtained the plea during a closed court hearing and were conducting a sweeping investigation into the fraud. The embezzlement has created a political scandal in Malaysia: The prime minister lost his election bid in May and is now the subject of corruption charges.

D.O.J. MEMOS ON THE ABUSE OF DETAINEES

Also last week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals scheduled oral arguments for next month in a long-running FOIA case brought by The Times on behalf of its reporter Charlie Savage. The suit seeks the release of Department of Justice memos that set out its rationale for not bringing criminal charges against government employees or contractors for abusing terrorism suspects interrogated after 9/11, including two cases in which the detainees died. A federal district judge ruled in 2017 that five of the memorandums should be released to the public. The government has appealed that decision.

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