Scoring a victory for transparency on behalf of a coalition of media outlets, Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic has won the release of more than 20 previously sealed court documents that shed light on the federal prosecution of a former Pennsylvania state legislator.
With co-counsel at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the clinic was representing some of the state’s largest media outlets, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, LNP Media Group and Spotlight PA.
They were seeking records from a case involving then-state representative Leslie Acosta, who in early 2016 was indicted in a scheme to defraud a mental health clinic in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, prior to holding elected office.
As Acosta prepared for reelection that year, the indictment and her eventual guilty plea remained sealed, so Pennsylvania voters didn’t know their representative had admitted to criminal fraud.
The court unsealed the guilty plea two months before the election, long past the filing deadline for challengers. Running unopposed, Acosta won by default despite her ineligibility to hold office once sentenced, then resigned weeks later under bipartisan pressure, requiring a special election to replace her.
“Transparency is especially important for issues relating to misconduct of elected officials,” said Tyler Valeska, First Amendment Fellow and supervising attorney in the case. “This case is an extreme example of why: The secrecy of these documents likely swung an election result. It shows that a free flow of information is the lifeblood of our democracy.”
A U.S. District Court judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania had sealed the case documents at the request of Acosta’s attorney, who claimed it was necessary to prevent prejudicing the trial of one of Acosta’s co-conspirators, Valeska said. But even after all cases involving the scheme concluded – and despite significant public interest in Acosta’s criminal prosecution – many of the documents remained unavailable to the public.
In its motion to unseal them, filed in February, Valeska said the First Amendment Clinic argued that First Amendment and common law rights of access entitled the public to the sealed documents. Third-year law students Hayden Rutledge and Julia Gebhardt led the effort with supervision from Valeska and Cortelyou Kenney, visiting assistant clinical professor and the clinic’s associate director. The team also included co-counsel Paula Knudsen Burke, a Pennsylvania-based Local Legal Initiative attorney for the Reporters Committee.
Attorneys for the government and Acosta largely did not oppose the motion, Valeska said.
The court in April ordered the release of 21 of the 23 documents at issue in their entirety, and on May 18 the other two documents with only minor redactions. Access to the documents will allow the public to fill in missing pieces concerning Acosta’s prosecution, Valeska said.
“The good news is that these records have been unsealed, and Pennsylvania voters and taxpayers will finally be able to learn more about how the government prosecuted a corrupt politician’s crimes,” Burke said. “The bad news is that it took a team of lawyers and law students fighting on behalf of a consortium of newspapers to ensure that documents that should be public are in fact accessible to everyone.”
The case is part of an ongoing collaboration between the First Amendment Clinic and the Reporters Committee, and one of several cases the clinic is currently handling in Pennsylvania.