Media Coalition Seeks to End Secrecy in Manafort Case

WASHINGTON (CN) – A media coalition fired back at indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in a court filing Monday, claiming that his fair trial rights do not outweigh their access to sealed search warrant materials in the case.

“The Special Counsel’s invocation of an ongoing criminal investigation and Manafort’s invocation of his fair trial right as complete bars to release of any of the Warrant Materials at issue here sweep far too broadly and lack sufficient specifics to overcome the public’s qualified rights of access to them,” the 22-page reply says.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, CNN and Politico filed a motion to unseal the material on April 25, along with transcripts and other records in the criminal cases prosecuted by special counsel Robert Mueller.

But Manafort, who is facing dual criminal indictments in Washington, D.C. and Virginia related to his lobbying work on behalf of a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, argued in a court filing June 5 that doing so could generate negative media coverage that would harm his right to a fair trial.

Responding to that argument for the media coalition Monday, Ballard Spahr attorney Jay Brown pushed back on Manafort’s assertion that the intense public interest in Mueller’s Russia investigation warrants further secrecy.

“With all due respect to Manafort, that preexisting publicity is such that he cannot plausibly contend that the release of the Warrant Materials would tip the balance against him in the mind of even one member of the venire either here or in the Eastern District of Virginia,” the filing says.

Moreover, Brown said Manafort negated his fair trial argument by choosing to make public on the case docket some materials related to the search of his storage locker and condominium in Alexandria, Virginia, which disclosed the kind of information he now claims must be kept private, such as the address of the storage unit.

Manafort and Mueller have both also argued that the media coalition has no First Amendment right to the materials before the investigation concludes.

But the media coalition claims that neither Manafort nor Mueller have overcome its First Amendment right to search warrant materials. The only issue in the D.C. Circuit, the coalition argues, is at what point that right attaches to the materials: when the warrant is executed or after its subject has been indicted.

According to the June 11 filing, courts in the District of Columbia have repeatedly recognized the public’s right to access search warrant materials, which are typically not filed under seal, to serve as a check on the judiciary and ensure courts aren’t acting as a rubber stamp for law enforcement.

To shield those ordinarily public materials, prosecutors must first obtain sealing orders.

“Their reliance on this practice as evidence that warrant materials historically have been treated as secret turns logic on its head,” the filing says. “There would be no need to file a motion to seal search warrant materials unless those materials were presumptively public in the first instance.”

Brown says the court should address legitimate concerns of whether disclosure would harm an ongoing investigation on a case-by-case basis.

“But that concern cannot be used to support an argument that there is no qualified access right in the first instance,” the filing says.

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