EDITORIAL: Intense secrecy in HOA fraud case a travesty

The federal justice system’s contempt for transparency knows no bounds. A culture that has long rejected openness and accountability to taxpayers is taking secrecy to an outrageous new level in the prosecution of defendants in the valley’s homeowner association fraud case.

Earlier this year, we saw defense attorneys file a motion to seal a government motion to admit new evidence. Those same lawyers later filed a motion to seal their motion to seal.

Then, this month, prosecutors, defense attorneys and U.S. Magistrate Judge George Foley Jr. agreed to a protective order, but not for any one person tied to an investigation that has seen one target commit suicide and one defendant commit suicide after pleading guilty and suffering a terrible beating. No, this order covers “Protected Documents.”

The records, central to the government’s case in what has become one of the most costly and complicated prosecutions in Nevada history, can’t be reviewed by the people who are paying for the proceedings. This class of documents will be stored inside the U.S. attorney’s office, and court approval is required before copies can be made. “Defense Counsel, attorneys’ paralegals, investigators, experts, and secretaries employed by the attorneys of record … shall make no disclosure of the contents of the Protected Documents to any person who is not part of that defense team (including representatives of the news media),” the order says. In other words, talking to the press could lead to sanctions or jail.

This is a fraud investigation, not a matter of national security. And it’s an investigation that has covered about six years, related to a criminal conspiracy that, according to authorities, began more than a decade ago. The government alleges conspirators packed HOA boards with fellow conspirators, who then initiated construction defect claims that allowed everyone to cash in on millions of dollars worth of legal and construction fees.

Locked-down records and closed hearings have resulted in dozens of guilty pleas. If anyone goes to trial, it likely won’t start for years. This case goes well beyond those victimized by the fraud. It’s of great relevance to the hundreds of thousands of valley residents who live in common-interest communities. How are they supposed to have confidence in the integrity of the process if all they can see are people walking into and out of federal court?

The public would never stand for such secrecy in state court proceedings, and they shouldn’t tolerate it from a federal government that increasingly answers to no one — not even Congress. Let the sun shine in.