in Houston, Texas
Hundreds of El Paso public corruption documents remain under seal
Monday, Sep 17, 2012, 09:44AM CST
By Mike Cronin
files

Reams of court documents remain sealed in an El Paso public corruption case --- including two documents that the judge in December said should be unsealed after 2011, the El Paso Times reports.

First Amendment experts have said (Judge Frank Montalvo) has been too quick to seal some of the hundreds of documents and proceedings that have been hidden from the public in El Paso's raft of corruption cases, which stretch back to 2004.

Under the law, court documents and proceedings are supposed to be open unless a judge determines there is a strong government interest in sealing them.

Among the docs that are public is the Dec. 9 transcript of former County Judge Dolores Briones’ guilty plea, in which she admits accepting $24,000 in bribes in exchange for supporting a $600,000 federal contract. The court unsealed the transcript this week, even as Montalvo ordered that any other motions using the plea be sealed. The plea agreement itself and the factual basis for the plea both remain sealed, the Times reports.

Montalvo previously stated in court that he sealed many of the documents at the request of federal prosecutors, based on their continuing investigations.

Charles Daughtry, a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told the El Paso Times that he could not “see any legitimate reason” to keep any of the remaining Briones documents sealed. Those documents already are available to the defendant and the statute of limitations has expired.

The El Paso Times estimated in July that 268 orders, documents and motions remained under seal.

Nine people, including six public officials, have pleaded guilty to corruption charges resulting from a 2010 indictment that states $100 million in government health-insurance business was illegally steered to Access HealthSource. The investigation stretches back for years and has managed to touch virtually every corner of government in El Paso.

Wiretaps of three men connected to businessman Bob Jones, sentenced to 10 years and fined $68 million for his role in the Access bribery scheme, revealed that the scandal penetrated El Paso County government and its courts; local police; and the El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro school districts. Prosecutors have presented evidence of bribes accepted by elected county officials and school board members.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of files by flickr user T a k, used via a Creative Commons license.

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