The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana recently issued statements critical of state Attorney General Jeff Landry's decision to sue a newspaper when one of its reporters sought access to public records.
On Feb. 5, Landry sued The (Baton Rouge) Advocate after its reporter, Andrea Gallo, submitted a public records request to Landry's office, seeking copies of sexual harassment complaints against one of Landry's employees, Pat Magee. Magee heads the AG's criminal division.
ACLU executive director Alanah Odoms described Landry's decision as “a reckless and brazen attack on the press.”
Of Landry, Odoms said, “He is using his position and power—along with taxpayer dollars—to hide the truth about inappropriate and unlawful conduct occurring within his office. And furthermore, he is seeking to punish and silence a reporter for requesting transparency.”
Normally, a citizen or newspaper has the option to sue a records custodian if the custodian refuses to turn over the records requested. It is unusual for a records custodian to sue a citizen or a newspaper in response to a public records request. PAR refers to these kinds of actions as “revenge” or “reverse” lawsuits.
“The broader category of these types of action are known by the acronym SLAPP, for strategic lawsuit against public participation,” stated PAR. “SLAPPs are used by private companies and government bodies against various forms of free speech and are intended to overwhelm or silence critics and investigators by intimidating or burdening them with legal attacks and the costs of mounting a defense.”
“Reverse lawsuits are a practice that has been decried across the country as a bad faith exercise of government secrecy and bullying,” PAR added.
PAR warned that Landry's actions would set an “unfortunate example” and encourage “egregious behavior among state and local government agencies and commissions” across the state.
“There is a proper way to go about these disputes,” stated PAR's commentary on the subject of reverse lawsuits. “When a public agency believes that an exemption in state law applies to a government document or part of a document, it may cite the exemption and withhold or redact the record.
“The requestor can try to work out a compromise with the agency and is entitled to go to court to seek the release of the full document or a redacted copy. The public agency can respond, defend its position and get its day in court without initiating a lawsuit against a requestor. These types of disputes and court decisions are a legitimate process and a normal occurrence in Louisiana and elsewhere.”
PAR noted that several public agencies across the country have acted “aggressively against their citizens by filing lawsuits” instead of providing access to public records.
PAR alluded to other recent reverse lawsuits, such as the city of Tallulah's decision to sue a reporter in 2018 for trying to access documents as well as the city of Monroe's lawsuit against The Ouachita Citizen when the newspaper sought the internal affairs records of former Monroe police Cpl. Reginald “Reggie” Brown. At the time, Jamie Mayo served as mayor, and Brown was widely known to be Mayo's favorite to take over as chief of the police department.
The city's lawsuit against The Citizen is ongoing.
The Ouachita Citizen also was the target of a reverse lawsuit in 2015 when the Fourth Judicial District Court sued the newspaper to block the newspaper's access to law clerk Allyson Campbell's personnel record.
An audit of the district court's finances showed an employee may have been paid for time they did not work. The Ouachita Citizen sought more records pertaining to the audit finding, including Campbell's personnel file, but a special appointed judge shot down the newspaper's request.
Later, The Ouachita Citizen obtained a copy of records from Campbell's personnel file when the law clerk was investigated by Louisiana State Police for criminal misconduct. The records in the State Police investigative report showed Campbell was issued a written warning and given a demotion and placed on a month-long suspension without pay for work attendance violations and time sheet discrepancies.
Campbell continues to work at the district court. Landry's office determined there was insufficient evidence to sustain a “sustainable conviction.”