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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Feds Were Too Quick|to Clam Up on Sandusky

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Department of Justice must explain why it withheld grand jury records tied to the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal, a federal judge ruled.

Pennsylvania State University alumnus Ryan Bagwell brought the case pro se this past April, seeking the government's records from the now-closed Sandusky investigation under the Freedom of Information Act.

With the former assistant football coach serving decades in prison, one aspect of the investigation focused on the extent to which Penn State ignored reports of Sandusky's predations.

Though the feds had produced 517 pages in response to Bagwell's request by July 2015, it withheld 104 pages in full.

The withheld data also included a store of "grand jury material" that the government never even reviewed - representing 2,700 pages of records and 86 gigabytes of electronic information.

Deadpanning Friday that the DOJ offered little rationale for its response, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper called the agency's response "plainly insufficient."

To investigate its handling of sexual abuse claims in the school's football program,

Penn State hired former FBI director Louis Freeh.

Cooper pointed out that Freeh seemingly had little friction interfacing with the U.S. Attorney's Office in his own records search, and that the government had been exhaustive and forthcoming in its provision of records.

One area where the government gave Bagwell a confusing response is in its explanation of searching the email system for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Though the DOJ "does not indicate whether this search included the office's email system," it acknowledged that it withheld emails between assistant U.S. attorneys.

"The court cannot conclude, based on the records before it, that DOJ's search for responsive records was adequate," Cooper wrote.

An explanation of each document the government claims is exempt from disclosure is supposed to appear in a Vaughn index, named for the 1973 FOIA case Vaughn v. Rosen, but Cooper found that the index in this case came to a slim four pages.

In addition to finding the index "exceptionally short," Cooper said it linked withheld documents to various FOIA exemptions "in a purely conclusory manner."

While at least some of the information Bagwell seeks involves grand jury information, Cooper said the mere passage of information through grand jury doors does not automatically exempt it from FOIA requests.

The 10-page ruling gives the DOJ until Jan. 29, 2016, to conduct an additional search and supplement the explanations for withheld records.

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