A Washington federal judge today ordered federal prosecutors to disclose more details about a past probe into alleged misconduct by U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) or prepare to better justify the continued secrecy. She cited a previous decision finding the congressman's privacy interests were "much diminished."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, sued the U.S. Department of Justice in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over the denial of a request for documents related to the criminal investigation. The Justice Department investigated Young in connection with corruption allegations, but he was never charged with a crime.
Today, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler handed both sides a win and a loss. The judge agreed with the government that certain documents and information were protected under the Freedom of Information Act as attorney work product or because they reflected privileged internal deliberations about the investigation.
Kessler, however, said the Justice Department failed to make specific arguments for withholding other information under FOIA exemptions protecting materials that the government said might lead to an invasion of privacy.
Kessler pointed to an earlier ruling in the case finding that although Young did have a substantial privacy interest, it was "much diminished" by the amount of information about the investigation that was already public. She said the government presented "boilerplate language" about the public and private interests at stake and failed to address the specific interests at play if the materials were released.
The judge today ordered the Justice Department to disclose the records withheld under the privacy exemptions or else come back with specific justifications.
CREW filed a FOIA request in January 2011 for information about the Young investigation and the government's decision not to charge him, according to court records. The department denied the request wholesale. CREW filed a lawsuit in April 2011 challenging the denial, and Kessler ruled the department could not "categorically" deny the request.
The department then released several hundred pages of documents, many redacted, and argued the remaining materials and redacted information were protected under various FOIA exemptions. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment, with CREW arguing the Justice Department continued to improperly withhold documents and information.
CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said she weren't sure how many records were withheld under the privacy exemptions. Kessler's ruling on the attorney work product privilege was disappointing, Sloan said, but "not shocking."
"The department, from the get-go, has been arguing strongly against producing a single piece of paper in this case, and they keep losing on that," Sloan said. She added the group was pursuing similar requests for information about other investigations into members of Congress.
A Justice Department spokeswoman and a spokesman for Young could not immediately be reached for comment.