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EDITORIAL: Release HOA fraud documents

You’d think the federal government was prosecuting terrorists. Or hiding the existence of aliens. Or prosecuting hidden alien terrorists. But the alarming secrecy surrounding one of the biggest and most complicated criminal cases in Southern Nevada history had nothing to do with national security or saving the world.

It was a fraud case involving homeowner associations. The scope of fraud committed by more than 40 defendants was staggering, to be sure, but an estimated $60 million conspiracy isn’t enough to justify slamming the courthouse doors on the press and the public for years and years.

The case, which covers crimes that took place more than a decade ago, finally is over. Four people were convicted at trial and 38 others pleaded guilty. A few sentencings remain. The evidence used to leverage so many convictions has been locked up longer than most of the defendants ever will be.

It’s time to find out exactly what they did. The Las Vegas Review-Journal filed papers in federal court Tuesday to make public the millions of documents the Justice Department, the court and defense attorneys kept secret for so long.

“Now that the charges in this case have all been resolved, the First Amendment and common law rights of the press and the public to access the courts and trials carried out in those courts demands that these documents and hearings be unsealed, and the protective orders entered in this case be dissolved,” Review-Journal attorney Maggie McLetchie wrote in the court papers.

Former construction company boss Leon Benzer masterminded a scheme to recruit straw buyers for homes that were part of HOAs, then use those buyers to take over HOA boards through rigged elections. The compromised boards then directed millions of dollars in construction defect repair contracts to Benzer’s company. Over the course of the prosecution, four lawyers and three police officers pleaded guilty.

Because the investigation targeted people in law enforcement and there were allegations of leaks, authorities kept it air tight. Records were sealed. Attorneys filed motions to seal their motions to seal. And anyone involved in the case who talked faced sanctions. It was enough to call into question the credibility of the entire proceeding. The integrity of courts depends on openness. The public needs to know the system isn’t fixed or politicized. And defendants have a right to a public trial.

“The combination of the breadth of the protective orders and the fact that there was no opportunity for the Review-Journal or any member of the public to oppose their entry in this matter means that there exists the possibility that numerous documents … have been kept from the public unnecessarily and perhaps unjustifiably,” Ms. McLetchie wrote.

As the case marched toward its conclusion, officials kept it largely secret simply because they could. We know the rough outlines of the case, but not the intricate details. In a valley where hundreds of thousands of people live under HOAs, those details are extremely important. How were the defendants able to get away with it for so long? Are associations still vulnerable to such scams?

We need to see the case records to find out. The court has no reason to hide them any longer. Release the records and end the secrecy.

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