The Society of Professional Journalists is giving its annual “Black Hole Award” to Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry for his attempt to block a public records request by filing a lawsuit against the reporter who made the request, according to a SPJ press release Monday. The journalism organization gives that dubious distinction to government institutions or agencies for acts of “outright contempt” of government transparency and the public’s right to know during Sunshine Week.
Landry did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the recognition on Monday.
Landry took issue with a public record request filed on Dec. 14 by Advocate | Times-Picayune reporter Andrea Gallo for copies of sexual harassment complaints against Pat Magee, who was the head of Landry’s criminal division until he resigned last week.
His office initially blocked Gallo’s request by telling her the files were protected due to an “ongoing investigation.” She requested the documents again when the investigation concluded but was denied and then hit with a lawsuit from Landry for “demanding information which will compromise the rights of our employees and could lead to litigation over the violation of those rights.”
The case went to trial on March 4, with Judge Tim Kelley of the 19th Judicial District ruling in favor of Gallo. Kelley ordered the documents released after making redactions that would identify witnesses, victims or bystanders. Kelley did not find that Landry acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner in withholding the records and filing the lawsuit.
“I do not find in any way that the AG or anybody involved in this put their personal interests ahead of the public’s,” he said.
Despite losing on the central matter of the case, Landry’s office celebrated Kelley’s finding that he did not violate the law in withholding the record.
“As Judge Kelley declared our office ‘followed the letter of the law…sought guidance from the Court and did everything a public official must do;’ we were ‘not arbitrary or capricious in any way;’ we were ‘diligent’ in handling the matter,” Assistant Attorney General Angelique Freel said in a press release that afternoon.
This case had the potential to chill any future efforts to obtain open records, especially those from smaller newsrooms, freelancers or individuals who may fear the financial burden of a similar lawsuit, the SPJ statement argues.
Magee resigned from Landry’s office Thursday after a second sexual harassment complaint against him was made public.
“Dishonorable mentions” for the Black Hole Award include Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, Seattle Police Department and Seattle Detective Michael P. Magan, for their attempt at forcing local news stations to turn over unpublished images to convict protesters, and Trenton government officials, for repeatedly violating New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act and Open Public Records Act and attempting to criminalize journalism.
Nominations for the Black Hole Award come from journalists, open government advocates and the general public.
Previous recipients of the award include President Donald Trump and his administration, the Connecticut State Police, the U.S. Virgin Islands Government and Oklahoma State University.