Posted December 6, 2014
EDITORIAL: HOA fraud case shows disdain for public access
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
It’s bad enough when federal judges, federal court administrators and federal prosecutors work together to block press and public access to the justice system. But when defense attorneys come after the media, it’s evidence of systemic hostility to open government.
The homeowners association fraud case playing out in federal court is one of the longest, most expensive and most complicated prosecutions in state history. Lead defendant Leon Benzer, a former construction company boss, is accused of compromising at least 10 HOA boards by packing them with members who would pursue construction defect claims and hire companies run by conspirators to do the lucrative legal and repair work. The case has played out almost entirely in secret, as authorities pressure more defendants into plea agreements.
However, for two days in September, critical documents in the case were posted on the digital federal court docket, making them available for public inspection. The Review-Journal lawfully accessed the records — which included Benzer’s admission of involvement in FBI and Las Vegas police reports — and published stories based on reporting from the documents.
The court responded by sealing those records and removing them from the record. But Benzer’s legal team was apoplectic, filing motions to block the publication of related stories, move the scheduled trial from Las Vegas, have the case dismissed and charge prosecutors with misconduct.
Now attorney Daniel Albregts is questioning, in court papers, whether the Review-Journal obtained the documents during the two-day window they were public. Mr. Albregts previously claimed that federal prosecutors acted improperly in allowing the newspaper to obtain the records. As reported by the Review-Journal’s Jeff German, the FBI and Las Vegas police reports were made public because of filing errors by attorney Keith Gregory, who represents one of Benzer’s co-defendants.
If Mr. Albregts believes his client is best served by delay tactics, more power to him. But he’s wasting his time questioning how the Review-Journal got the records. The newspaper obtained them because Mr. German is very good at his job.
This entire episode might never have happened if all parties in the federal court system didn’t expend so many resources and hours walling off cases from public scrutiny. The sealing and super-sealing of records is practically a default action for court clerks, and judges and prosecutors are alarmingly cozy when it comes to shutting doors. The integrity of the justice system is rooted in openness, in allowing the public to see how it works.
If authorities and attorneys continue to insist on operating in the shadows, this newspaper will make every effort to drag them, kicking and screaming, into the sunlight.