Judge rules AG Landry must turn over public records
Editor’s note: Gray Media Group, which owns six Louisiana television stations including WAFB-TV, KNOE-TV, KALB-TV, KPLC-TV, KSLA-TV and WVUE-TV, filed a brief in support of reporter Andrea Gallo and The Advocate newspaper which are the focus of this report.
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - District Court Judge Tim Kelley Thursday ruled records requested by a newspaper reporter related to sexual harassment complaints against a high-ranking member of the Louisiana Attorney General’s office must be made public.
However, Kelly said the court would remove the names of any alleged victims or witnesses as well as any information that might otherwise identify those persons.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office said the agency will accept the ruling and not file an appeal.
The records detail the sexual harassment complaints against Pat Magee, the head of Attorney General Jeff Landry’s criminal division.
Judge Kelly said the case forced him to weigh two competing portions of the Louisiana constitution. In issuing his ruling Thursday, Kelly said the court had to balance “the rights of the public to receive public documents versus the privacy rights of an individual.”
Kelly said that the public deserves the right to know what the allegations were in order for the public to know if their government acted appropriately in the matter. “If it was flawed in some way, we (the public) have the right to question why,” Kelly said.
Andrea Gallo, a reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, filed a public records request in December 2020 asking for copies of all harassment complaints involving Magee. Gallo also requested all documents that detail how those complaints were investigated and dealt with.
Magee was ultimately found to have used inappropriate language in the workplace including profanity, sexual slang, and unprofessional comments about the appearance of coworkers, his January 2021 disciplinary letter said.
The details of the discipline taken against him were outlined in an “administrative investigation report” released by Landry’s office to various media outlets earlier this year.
“In addition, your management style includes outbursts, the use of profanity and frequent references to firing employees,” the report said.
As a result, Magee received a 38-day suspension without pay, equating to a fine of $20,559.52, the agency said.
Magee, who makes $140,670 per year, was also ordered to take part in training courses to develop his “emotional intelligence, professionalism in the workplace, conflict management and leadership skills,” his disciplinary letter said.
Landry’s office initially said it would produce the documents the newspaper requested once its own internal investigation into the matter was complete.
However, after that happened, Landry’s office declined to release the documents, citing Magee’s constitutional right to privacy and policies within the Attorney General’s office and state Civil Service that call for confidentiality in such investigations, the newspaper reported.
The newspaper said it then agreed to receive the documents with the names of the alleged victims and witnesses redacted, or blacked out, to preserve privacy.
”We would invite redaction of the initial complaint to protect the identity of the victim, but that is the only privacy interest even arguably applicable,” attorney Scott Sternberg, who represents The Advocate and The-Times Picayune in the matter, told Landry’s office in a Feb. 2 letter, the newspaper reported.
However, that request was also denied.
Landry’s office said releasing the information would “compromise the rights of our employees and could lead to litigation over the violation of those rights.” “Allegations of sexual harassment that turn out to be unsupported, inaccurate and unfounded can destroy marriages, damage employee’s children, wreck families and ruin reputations,” the Attorney General’s denial letter said.
When Gallo’s newspaper indicated they would file suit to obtain the records, Landry fired back with a lawsuit of his own. Landry asked a judge to issue a declaratory judgment denying the public records request and to seal the proceedings from the public, the newspaper reported.
During Thursday’s hearing, Alicia Wheeler, attorney for Landry, agreed to waive the right for the hearing to be sealed with the condition that none of the names of the alleged victims or witnesses were used. Gallo’s attorney, Scott Sternberg, agreed to that stipulation.
During the proceeding, Judge Kelley said the case presents a conflict between the strengths of the privacy rights of the individuals involved against the public’s right to know. He ordered that the names of those involved not be used in the hearing, with the exception of Magee.
Kelley said, because of the high position in state government that he holds, Magee does not have the same expectation of privacy. “The more important or higher position one holds in government, the less expectation of privacy that is assigned to them,” the judge said. “In this case, Magee holds a high enough position in government that is would not apply to him.”
Wheeler testified Thursday that Landry’s lawsuit against Gallo and her newspaper was in no way a “retaliatory” measure against the media, but rather an effort to see if the documents that were being requested should be considered public record.
Wheeler said that redacting the names was not enough to protect privacy. She said, even with the names redacted from the reports, most people reading the documents would be able to determine who those people are.
She said some portions of the documents contain unsubstantiated claims and hearsay that are “embarrassing and humiliating.”
Wheeler alleged that Gallo’s efforts to gain the additional documents were geared toward “selling more newspapers” that do not advance the public’s right to know.”
No one wants to make a complaint to their employer and make it on the front page of the newspaper or the top of the 5 o’clock news,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said releasing the documents would have a “chilling effect” on future employees feeling comfortable coming forward with claims of sexual harassment.
Sternberg argued during Thursday’s hearing that Landry’s action were indeed retaliatory. He alleged that, had Gallo been a private citizen requesting these documents, instead a member of a large media outlet, she might have been discouraged from moving forward because of Landry’s legal action.
Sternberg argued that the additional documents could shed more light on what happened and rise to the level of the public’s right to know.
Sternberg said that allowing government agencies to start suing the requestors of public information would create a world we would not “want to live in here in Louisiana.”
Judge Kelley also ordered Landry’s office to pay Gallo and her newspaper $5,625 in attorneys fees.
Landry’s office issued a statement after the ruling, thanking the judge for “remedying the situation.” “We appreciate his decision which protects the rights of the complainant, witnesses, and other employees who expect to report in confidence and without fear of retaliation.
As Judge Kelly declared our office ‘followed the letter of the law…sought guidance from the Court and did everything a public official must do;’ we were ‘not arbitrary or capricious in any way’; we were ‘diligent’ in handling the matter,” the statement said.
Earlier this week, several other media organizations filed a brief in support of Gallo and her newspaper. Those groups include the Louisiana Press Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The Lens and Gray Media Group. Gray owns six Louisiana television stations including WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge, KPLC-TV in Lake Charles, WVUE-TV in New Orleans, KALB-TV in Alexandria, KSLA-TV in Shreveport and KNOE-TV in Monroe.
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