weather icon Clear

Federal court in Las Vegas has dozens of secret cases

On any given week, dozens of criminal and civil cases move through the federal court system in Las Vegas hidden from public view.

Agents and prosecutors secretly obtain warrants, collecting evidence for months, even years in criminal investigations.

“It haunts me, because I wonder what didn’t I get,” criminal defense attorney Louis Schneider said. “What would have helped my client?”

In the federal court system in Las Vegas, there were 72 sealed but active civil cases, along with 26 criminal cases with no public access, as of late this week, according to court clerk Debra Kempi.

Most of the civil cases are forfeitures filed under seal by the U.S. attorney’s office, she said, while seven were filed under the False Claims Act, which imposes liability on those who defraud government programs. The other four were listed simply as “miscellaneous.”

As of Friday, 14 of the active criminal cases under seal sought a fugitive from justice, Kempi added.

The figures were obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal during the nationally recognized Sunshine Week, which is held each year to focus attention on access to public information, open government and journalism’s role in promoting transparency.

The number of cases under seal in federal court fluctuates as cases are unsealed or closed, Kempi said.

Week after week, lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Nevada enter the system with only a case number and ambiguous lettering. Names of the plaintiffs and defendants are redacted, and the type of litigation is not revealed.

But that sealing must first be approved by a judge.

Local court rules state that such cases are accompanied by a motion to seal the details. Such litigation could ultimately be made public, according to Kempi.

“All papers filed under seal will remain sealed until the court either denies the motion to seal or enters an order unsealing them,” according to the Local Rules of Practice, approved in May 2016.

Showing of ‘good cause’

Criminal charges sought by the Department of Justice often are filed in secret as investigators gather information and agents button up their case.

“In federal court, filed documents, including indictments and plea agreements, are sealed only after court authorization with ‘good cause’ shown,” Trisha Young, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Nevada, wrote in an email. “A showing of ‘good cause’ exists in a number of situations, including where revealing a person’s name could lead the person to flee from law enforcement apprehension, the destruction of potential evidence, the prevention of witness or victim tampering, or for any other reason the court deems appropriate. With limited exception, documents are unsealed by the court only after the ‘good cause’ for sealing has dissipated.”

Retired U.S. District Judge Philip Pro said that, whether sealed cases and information are criminal or civil, judges must provide sound reasons for doing so.

“It’s not just something done arbitrarily by Judge X, Y or Z,” Pro said. “You’ve got to be able to articulate the reason, because whatever you do could be subject to a higher court.”

He offered his opinion that the sealing of cases “is not a situation that is abused.”

Criminal defense attorney Todd Leventhal, a former federal prosecutor, said his clients are sometimes made aware of a federal grand jury investigation through what is known as a target letter. The secret process helps protect the identity of informants, whose names may never be revealed because so many criminal cases in federal court are resolved before trial.

“The government strikes, and they strike big, and they strike to make sure that everybody in their net is accounted for,” said Leventhal, who worked in the Northern District of California under Robert Mueller, now special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.

‘Double-edged sword’

The long investigations often result in voluminous packets of evidence.

“But it’s kind of a double-edge sword,” Schneider said. “They have so much time to work up an investigation that I don’t see all of the evidence, only the evidence that they plan on using in prosecution.”

Civil matters also may be sealed in state court after litigation is settled, and that restriction can be harmful to the public, said longtime Las Vegas defense attorney Tom Pitaro.

“If a person is out there committing violations sufficient to sue, then the public at least has a right to know,” he said. “You’d like to know if the doctor you’re going in to have an operation has four cases against him where he’s settled.”

Since 2009, at least 94 civil cases and three business court cases have been sealed by court order in Clark County District Court, according to documents provided to the Review-Journal by spokeswoman Mary Ann Price.

She said judges often strive to make sure the public has access to state proceedings.

Unlike at the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse, where cameras are not allowed, media outlets are permitted to photograph and videotape inside courtrooms at the Regional Justice Center.

“The court has a philosophy of being open and transparent and compliant,” Price said. “That’s the court’s mandate.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Politics Videos
Clark County 2019 Election Results - Video
The 2019 Elections wrap up in Clark County including an upset in the Boulder City Mayor race.
Olivia Diaz talks about her win in Ward 3 - VIDEO
Las Vegas City Councilwoman-elect Olivia Diaz talks about her election win in Ward 3 and what lies ahead for her.
Greene discusses Read by 3 and Opportunity Scholarships - VIDEO
The Nevada Legislative Session is over and the results are mixed for Nevada students, according to Tom Greene, Senior regional legislative director, Excel in Ed in Action.
Bernie Sanders visits Las Vegas
Sen. Bernie Sanders made a stop at Roy W. Martin middle school on Thursday, during his campaign trail.
Kamala Harris campaigns in Las Vegas
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris castigated President Donald Trump’s merit-based immigration plan, saying it was “short-sighted” and overlooked the cultural significance of family, during a campaign stop in Las Vegas. “We cannot allow people to start parsing and pointing fingers and creating hierarchies among immigrants,” Harris told Asian Pacific Islander leaders at a Chinatown restaurant, one of two appearances she made Thursday.
The Right Take New Education Funding Plan - VIDEO
On Monday, Senate Education Committee chair Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, released a new education funding formula. For years, many Democrat politicians have criticized the current education funding formula, called the Nevada Plan. They claim it’s old and outdated. Their biggest beef is that it doesn’t allocate more money for students who are English Language Learners or live in poverty. The theory is that it’s harder to educate those students and so they need additional services, which costs additional money.
Kamala Harris campaigns in Nevada
California Senator Kamala Harris meets with One APIA Nevada, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies empowering Asian Pacific Islander Nevadans. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ben Carson talks housing (Audio only)
Ben Carson discusses housing with the Review-Journal editorial board on Thursday. (Audio only)
Ben Carson visits the RJ (Full Audio Only)
Ben Carson discusses housing with the Review-Journal editorial board on Thursday. (Audio only)
Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigns in Nevada
After campaigning at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 16 in Henderson, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke with the Review-Journal.
Student serenades Mayor Carolyn Goodman at swearing in
Students from the school she founded, The Meadows School, serenaded Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman during a swearing in ceremony for her third and final term. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Al Gore Speaks At UNLV About Climate Change - Video
Former Vice President of the United States Al Gore talks to an audience at UNLV about the effects of Climate change and how to switch to renewable sources of energy.
Forum on Wages and Working People Highlights - VIDEO
Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, and John Hickenlooper speak in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Nevada Politics Today Valerie Weber - VIDEO
Valerie Weber sits down with Victor Joecks to discuss her policies and why she is running for Ward 2 of the Las Vegas City Council.
Cory Booker speaks at UNLV
US Senator Cory Booker speaks at UNLV during a Young Democrats meet and greet on Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
May-Brown describes why some with disabilities need the subminimum wage - VIDEO
Eliminating the subminimum wage will end training and work opportunities for some members of the disabled community. Instead of doing something productive, they would be relegated to adult day care. That’s according to Tracy May-Brown, Opportunity Village’s director of advocacy, board and government relations.
Commission’s decision will delay Red Rock Canyon development
The Clark County Commission Wednesday rejected a developer’s request to approve a preliminary plan for 3,000 homes overlooking Red Rock Canyon before a federal agency grants permission for a roadway leading to the site.
Clark County commissioner calls on landlords to bring properties up to code
Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom has called on landlords in older parts of the valley to bring their properties up to code and keep them well-maintained or face the prospect of inspections, fines and citations. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Harry Reid speaks out against anti-Semitism
Unnerved by the rise in anti-Semitic hate speech and the general pervasiveness of bigotry, including in Nevada, former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid organized an educational forum at UNLV on Thursday as part of his call to unite people against it. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
President Trump speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas
President Donald Trump spoke at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s National Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas and updated on Israeli relations. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trump says border wall will have 'hundreds of miles' built by end of next year
President Donald Trump spoke at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s National Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas and discussed the progress of the border wall and the current relations there. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Protesters disrupt Trump's speech
Just as President Donald Trump started to make his opening remarks during his appearance at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s National Leadership Meeting, protesters disrupted his speech. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Roerink On The Problems With Taking Water From Eastern Nevada - Video
The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to take billions of gallons of water that doesn’t exist from Eastern Nevada via a pipeline that would cost ratepayers $15 billion. Doing so would devastate the wildlife and people who live there. That’s according to Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, which opposes the pipeline.
Las Vegas Election Night Wrap-Up
The Review-Journal's Politics and Government Editor, Steve Sebelius, wraps up election night. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Olivia Diaz Speaks To Ward 3 Supporters After Primary Election - Video
Olivia Diaz speaks to her supporters at a election party after results started coming in for the Ward 3 primaries.
Oscar Goodman Speaks On Behalf Of Mayor At Primary Win (edited)
Oscar Goodman spoke Tuesday night on behalf of his wife, Carolyn, who won the mayoral primary election. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Oscar Goodman Speaks On Behalf Of Mayor At Primary Win (Full)
Oscar Goodman spoke Tuesday night on behalf of his wife Carolyn, who won the mayoral primary election. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Gun Debate Shows Limits Of Government - Video
On Monday, the Assembly and Senate Judiciary Committees held a joint hearing on Assembly Bill 291. It would ban bump stocks and allow local governments to pass additional restrictions on firearms.
Lucy Flores speaks out about Biden incident
Former Nevada assemblywoman, Lucy Flores, expresses her feelings about an incident with former Vice President Joe Biden in 2014. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Harry Reid takes the stand in injury lawsuit
Former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid took the stand on Thursday in the product liability lawsuit brought against the makers of a resistance exercise band that Reid blames for blinding him in one eye.
Jurors hear opening statements in Reid personal injury trial
Opening statements were made on Tuesday in the product liability lawsuit brought by Harry Reid against against the makers of a resistance exercise band that Reid blames for blinding him in one eye.
Mayor Goodman delivers Meals on Wheels
Mayor Carolyn Goodman delivers Meals on Wheels to seniors on March 26, 2019.
Las Vegas City Council Ward 1 race
Candidates for Las Vegas City Council Ward 1. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Beto O’Rourke campaigns in Las Vegas
Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke addresses attendees during a campaign stop at Arandas Taqueria in Las Vegas on Sunday, March 24, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Beto O'Rourke House Party in Las Vegas
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke delivered a message of unity inside a Las Vegas living room Saturday night, outlining a mission to bridge the divide in a polarized America and rally behind “big defining ambitions that we have in common.” (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand talks at Atomic Liquors
Democrat presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand talks to her supporters at Atomic Liquors.
Presidential candidate Gillibrand meets with UNLV Immigration Clinic student attorneys
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., meets with UNLV Immigration Clinic student attorneys at her first stop in Nevada as a candidate Thursday, March 21, 2019. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto promotes the Rebuild America’s Schools Act
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., co-sponsor of the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, speaks at Hoggard Elementary School in Las Vegas to promote the bill that would provide $100 billion for infrastructure improvements at schools across the country. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
2 teens plead not guilty in 2018 killing of Las Vegas woman

Two 18-year-olds have pleaded not guilty to robbery and murder charges in the shooting death of a 60-year-old Las Vegas woman who police say arrived home with her husband to find the teens burglarizing their house.