The U.S. attorney's office is pushing back against an attempt by District of Columbia Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) to seal an agreement over Thomas' unpaid student loans.
“Mr. Thomas could have had have no expectation of privacy,” wrote Thomas Mauro, a Washington solo practitioner hired to represent the government. “The Defendant’s motion offers little more than the argument that sealing the Consent Judgment will be convenient for him given the other, unrelated, legal challenges he faces.”
Thomas had failed to pay back the $5,000 he borrowed in 1983 and 1984 for college. The government sued him for nonpayment in March 2006; as of this month, according to the government's pretrial statement (PDF), the government was seeking $19,777 for the original loan, interest and other fees.
A bench trial was scheduled for Dec. 14 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, but, as reported by The Washington Post at the time, Mauro told the court that an agreement had been reached. The following day, Thomas' attorney, Frederick Cooke Jr. of Washington’s Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke, moved to file the consent judgment under seal. U.S. District Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson granted the request.
On Monday, the government filed its opposition, pointing out that the entire proceeding has taken place on the public record for five years.
“He allowed this outstanding debt, pending since he finished college and throughout his entire public career, to reach the point where the debt became the subject of a public proceeding, which he could have avoided at any point by simply paying the debt,” Mauro wrote.
Cooke did not return a request for comment on Wednesday. Mauro referred questions to the U.S. attorney's office, which declined to comment through a spokesman.
In the motion to seal, Cooke had also written that, “The disclosure of the terms of the consent judgment will only contribute to further public speculation about the Defendant, and will serve to further damage his public image.” Thomas is under investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office for allegedly diverting $300,000 in funds designated for youth sports program for his own personal use.
The government responded that Thomas’ other legal woes were irrelevant to the case at hand. “As an elected official the public should have more rather than less access to the information involving the Defendant’s use of a public program such as the federally guaranteed student loan program,” Mauro wrote in the brief.
Public access to court documents is not absolute, but precedent requires extreme circumstances to place documents under seal. The government argued that in Thomas’ case, there is an especially strong public interest in making the consent judgment public because it deals with the Department of Education’s ability to collect unpaid loans. “The DOE, as a federal government agency, is accountable to the taxpaying public,” Mauro wrote.