Why We’re Seeking to Unseal Court Records Involving Senator Perdue

Republican candidate for Senate Sen. David Perdue speaks during a campaign stop at Peachtree Dekalb Airport Nov. 2, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

(CN) — Georgia’s Senator David Perdue has long pointed to his experiences as a CEO as qualification for holding a seat in the U.S. Senate.

During his 2014 race, the Republican in 30-second ad spots portrayed Washington as a bunch of crying babies and said his times as CEO of Reebok and Dollar General positioned him as an outsider who could tackle “large, complex situations.”

In his reelection efforts that will be decided in a Jan. 5 runoff election, he holds up the thousands of jobs he created while CEO of Dollar General in the bio on his campaign website.

But the campaign trail is not the only place where Perdue has spoken about his time at Dollar General.

On a Monday morning in June 2007, Perdue sat in a law office near Nashville’s Public Square Park and answered under oath the questions of two attorneys representing Dollar General’s shareholders.

On Thursday, Courthouse News, with the help of the Local Legal Initiative of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press, filed a motion to unseal Perdue’s deposition and other documents in that litigation.

Thirteen years ago, Dollar General announced a private equity firm planned to buy the company. Some shareholders thought the price of $22 a share was too low and a bad deal for them. 

As I wrote earlier this week, they sued the company, its board of directors and Perdue for breaching their fiduciary duties. Initial lawsuits accused the company’s leaders such as Perdue of self-dealing and not disclosing information about the sale to shareholders.

During his first term in office, Perdue has faced questions about his many stock trades while in the U.S. Senate. The Department of Justice investigated some of Perdue’s trades, the New York Times reported, and his campaign claimed he was cleared in the investigations.

Ultimately, the parties in the Dollar General litigation settled. The settlement, according to an order by the judge presiding over the case, does not imply whether Dollar General was liable, nor does it hint at the strength of the case the shareholders developed.

The result is that much of Perdue’s first deposition remains under seal. Also sealed is his second deposition. In fact, many of the key documents the public could use to understand the case and Perdue’s involvement in it are hidden away in the files of Davidson County Circuit Court.

The more than 90 documents sealed in this case include the shareholder’s amended complaint and arguments for and against a motion for summary judgment.

Paul McAdoo, staff attorney with the Reporters Committee, filed the motion and argued the protective order issued in the early moves of the case used a standard for sealing records that did not consider the public’s right to access court records under the First Amendment, the Tennessee Constitution and the common law.

“(Only) the agreement of the parties, a general finding of good cause, and the identification of material by either parties or non-parties as being either Confidential or Highly Confidential pursuant to a Stipulated Protective Order was proffered to support the expansive sealing in this case. That is not enough to keep secret large swaths of the filed court records in this case under either the constitutional or common law rights of access,” McAdoo wrote.

He said in a phone interview that Tennessee has a relatively limited collection of case law that deals with court records.

In 2018, McAdoo wrote an amici curiae on behalf of 13 media organizations including Courthouse News when the Tennessee Supreme Court considered whether the fair report privilege extended to court records. (It decided last year it did.)

“We’re arguing that based upon the constitutional and common law rights of access, court records should only be sealed in rare instances. The public, including the media hold those rights,” McAdoo said.

Meanwhile, the Georgia runoff elections will decide which political party controls the U.S. Senate.

Perdue has held up his time at Dollar General as an example of his ability to lead. Georgians should be able to fully dig into that legacy.

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