Judge Pries Open Lid on Cohen Search Warrants

Michael Cohen arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Siding with major news outlets, a federal judge ordered prosecutors on Thursday to release redacted copies of the search warrants justifying the raids on President Donald Trump’s prison-bound former attorney Michael Cohen.

“These applications implicate the familiar tension between public access to judicial records and the integrity of law enforcement investigations —interests arguably magnified by the intense scrutiny of Cohen’s criminal case by the media, the general public, and even the president of the United States,” U.S. District Judge William Pauley III wrote this morning.

The New York Times initiated the open-records request in October, months before Judge Pauley sentenced Cohen to three years in prison for what he called a “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct.”

“Simply put, the public interest in knowing the underlying bases for the investigation could not be higher,” Times attorney David McCraw wrote at the time.

The Associated Press, New York Daily News, New York Post, Dow Jones, Newsday, ABC, CBS and CNN later joined the proceedings, sparking the government to warn that production of the warrants could compromise an ongoing grand jury investigation.

“From the standpoint of protecting judicial efficiency and law enforcement interests, it makes far more sense to permit the government to conclude its ongoing investigation before proposing redactions,” Deputy U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami wrote last year.

But on Friday, Judge Pauley ruled that partial disclosure of the warrants “strikes an appropriate balance” between the right to public access and law enforcement interests.

“In particular, the government represents that aspects of its investigation remain ongoing, including those pertaining to or arising from Cohen’s campaign finance crimes,” Pauley wrote. “Indeed, the search warrant applications and affidavits catalogue an assortment of uncharged individuals and detail their involvement in communications and transactions connected to the campaign finance charges to which Cohen pled guilty.”

Pauley declined for now to unseal portions of the warrant related to Cohen’s campaign-finance crimes.

“At this stage, wholesale disclosure of the materials would reveal the scope and direction of the government’s ongoing investigation,” Pauley wrote, adding in a footnote that this interest would diminish after the probe ends.

“It would also unveil subjects of the investigation and the potential conduct under scrutiny, the full volume and nature of the evidence gathered thus far, and the sources of information provided to the government,” the 30-page opinion continues. “As courts have regularly observed in the context of ongoing investigations, the disclosure of such information may enable uncharged individuals to coordinate or tailor their testimony and interactions with the government.”

In a footnote, Pauley suggested that the ongoing investigations implicate multiple people, “some” of whom the government has identified to him privately.

“And if the past is any prologue,” Pauley wrote, “unmasking those who are cooperating with the government’s investigation or who have otherwise provided information to the government could deter further cooperation with the investigation by ‘subject[ing] those individuals to witness tampering, harassment, or retaliation.’”

Cohen cited “ongoing threats” from Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani for having canceled his public testimony before the House Oversight Committee, which was originally slated to occur today.

Rep. Adam Schiff announced that Cohen will testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 28, following a subpoena.

That same day is the deadline for prosecutors to provide their proposed warrant redactions.

Amid speculation that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will soon conclude his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Pauley ordered the government to submit a sealed status report identifying any people or entities on May 15.

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