The Las Vegas Review-Journal filed suit Tuesday to gain access to public records in an ongoing newspaper investigation into a secretive witness payment program.
The legal action is the result of District Attorney Steve Wolfson’s “prolonged campaign” to hinder the newspaper from “carrying on their constitutionally protected business and vital public service of reporting the news,” the lawsuit filed in District Court says.
The Review-Journal has published a series of articles on the district attorney’s decade-long practice of paying witnesses’ rent using an off-budget checking account. Some of the payments were for as much as $1,000.
“The payments from the District Attorney’s Office to or on behalf of witnesses raise important constitutional rights issues,” said the newspaper’s attorney, Maggie McLetchie. “The DA’s office’s apparent failure to provide the information to the defense in criminal cases has become an issue that is being litigated in a number of cases. It raises questions about fair trials and the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
The payment practice started long before Wolfson took office in 2012.
But Review-Journal Editor Michael Hengel said Wolfson has kept a lid of secrecy over the program after questions were raised about it.
”The D.A.’s office has given itself a black eye on this issue due to its lack of transparency, and it continues,” Hengel said. “You have to conclude that they don’t want the public to know the full scope of this practice.”
Wolfson could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Review-Journal published several articles by reporter Bethany Barnes on the payment program in August, and Wolfson said at that time his office would begin disclosing the witness payments to the defense.
But Wolfson subsequently violated the state’s public records law and either refused to provide the documents or heavily redacted them, the suit alleges.
Wolfson has consistently refused to give any adequate legal or factual justification for his actions, according to the lawsuit.
“It is the taxpayers’ money that is being used and Nevada’s Public Records Act is designed to allow the public to scrutinize how public funds are being spent,” McLetchie said.
Among other records, Wolfson has refused to make public an unredacted ledger for his Victim Witness Assistance Center’s checking account. A copy provided to the newspaper lacked such basic information as the numbers for cases that involved payments to prosecution witnesses. The names of the witnesses and reasons for payments also were redacted.
“Under Nevada law, the default is that the public is allowed access to public records – the records of our own government,” McLetchie said. “The DA’s refusal to provide access to information like case numbers associated with payments it has made to witnesses in criminal cases is not based on any valid legal privilege – in fact, case numbers are already a matter of public record. It is hard to understand the District Attorney’s claim that safety is implicated and refusal to provide such information.”
Wolfson also has failed to provide a copy of the district attorney’s Inducement Index, a database that contains benefits offered to people in exchange for their cooperation with prosecutors, the suit says.
And the district attorney has either withheld or redacted numerous requested emails relating to the Victim Witness Assistance Center and its ledger, the suit says.
Despite the newspaper’s repeated efforts, the suit says, Wolfson has continued to withhold requested public records, refused to provide unredacted copies and refused to offer any factual basis to support his failure to comply with the public records law.
The lawsuit seeks an expedited hearing and a judicial order for Wolfson to fulfill the Review-Journal’s public records requests.
Contact Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-8135. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter