At first, Andrea Gallo’s quest for sexual harassment complaints against a top state justice official seemed like a typical public records battle. The investigative reporter heard a common refrain from agencies withholding information: There was an “ongoing investigation.”
“The records should be ready and released to you by early next week,” officials eventually told Gallo on Jan. 22, a few days after she reported the criminal division head of the Louisiana Attorney General’s office had his pay docked for participating in “inappropriate” conversations.
Then the attorney general’s office came back with new arguments — and a lawsuit.
“You have demanded information which will compromise the rights of our employees and could lead to litigation over the violation of those rights,” staff for Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) wrote Friday in a letter to Gallo, a 28-year-old reporter at The Advocate and The Times-Picayune.
The letter added: “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 lawsuit against Gallo asks a judge to weigh in against disclosure and requests that the defendant pay any legal fees, alarming journalists and experts in press law who called the move a threat to government transparency and accountability. Peter Kovacs, The Advocate’s editor, said he fears a “chill” on ordinary citizens’ ability to get answers from those in power.
“If a citizen filed a public records request and then was sued and had to pay the legal fees of the agency that requested it, you would have a lot less citizens feeling comfortable filing public records requests,” he said. “It becomes an intimidation measure that promotes government secrecy.”
“It should matter to every citizen of Louisiana who might become the target of the might of their government,” he said in an interview.
The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did the official who was sanctioned, Patrick Magee. Magee, who has led the criminal division since 2018, does not appear to have commented publicly on the allegations against him.
The lawsuit argues that the documents Gallo seeks contain “private information that is constitutionally protected from disclosure.” In a Jan. 28 response to Gallo’s request — for sexual harassment allegations against Magee as well as records showing how they were handled — officials shared some documents but said they could not provide “the initial complaint.”
The suit also cites department policies on the confidentiality of employees’ complaints and says redactions to protect privacy “would result in a meaningless document.” It also says agencies would struggle to fight sexual harassment if staff feared their grievances will become public.
“Publication and/or disclosure of such detailed, personal accounts may embarrass or humiliate the complainant, accused, witnesses and anyone else involved,” the suit states.
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