WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Justice Department refuses to release the details of deals struck between federal prosecutors and alleged corporate wrongdoers, a suit filed by a law school librarian claims.
Jonathan Ashley, a librarian at the University of Virginia School of Law, sued the agency in federal court, stating that the agency wrongfully withheld the records under the Freedom of Information Act.
According to the complaint, Ashley has been doing research on behalf of law professor Brandon Garrett, whose academic works focuses on the criminal justice system and the potential for prosecutorial abuse associated with the deals between prosecutors and big corporations.
Critics of such non-prosecution agreements (NPAs) and deferred-prosecution agreements (DPAs) contend they allow senior level management to escape prosecution on white collar crimes in exchange for a promise to beef up their compliance and pay a relatively nominal fine.
"Courts have been skeptical of both NPAs and DPAs, and there is increasing concern that NPAs provide a run-around the judicial process since courts have little say in whether a prosecutor can bring charges or not," Ashley says.
Ashley and Garrett are collecting such agreements for an online database meant to shed light on why prosecutors would choose not to pursue charges against admitted criminals.
Ashley sent a FOIA request to the Justice Department in April asking for both NPAs and DPAs related to a host of corporations and other entities, including HSBC, Quest Diagnostics, Cosmetics Laboratories of America, ConAgra Poultry, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston.
Ashley says he received a response indicating that his requests had been forwarded to the U.S. Attorneys privacy unit, but hasn't heard back since.
According to the complaint, Garret has gotten praise from the bench for his work.
"As recently as July 21, 2014, Garrett was appointed by Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to appear as amicus curiae in United States of America v. Saena Tech Corporation 'for the limited purpose of providing the Court with advocacy on questions regarding the scope of the Court's authority, if any, to consider the fairness and reasonableness of a deferred prosecution in deciding whether to accept or reject such an agreement," the complaint states.
The complaint also cites congressional scrutiny over such agreements.
"Garret and Ashley's database provides the public a meaningful opportunity to scrutinize the terms of these agreements," Ashley says in the complaint. "Further, disclosure is in the government's interest since public availability will dispel any myths or false allegations regarding their content. As stated earlier, there are over two hundred NPAs and DPAs already publicly available, which weighs against the position that the NPAs and DPAs sought by Ashley somehow fall under a FOIA exemption."
Ashley wants the court to order the release of the requested agreements and to waive all related fees.
He's represented by Joshua Wheeler of the First Amendment Clinic in Charlottesville, Va.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.