Leslie Ricard Chambers (copy) (copy)

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry's office on Friday sued Andrea Gallo, a reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, over a public records request Gallo filed in December.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry on Friday sued a reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune over a public-records request she filed, asking a judge to issue a declaratory judgment denying the request and seal the proceedings.

The unusual action came a few days after the newspaper warned Landry that it intended to sue him if he didn’t turn over the requested records.

“In my 40 years as an editor, I’ve never seen a journalist get sued for requesting a public record,” said Peter Kovacs, the newspaper’s editor. “We’re not intimidated. In fact, we’re more determined.”

The matter dates to Dec. 14, when the reporter, Andrea Gallo, first filed a public records request with Landry’s office seeking copies of sexual harassment complaints against Pat Magee, the head of the office’s criminal division, and records of how the complaints were handled. Magee was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation that day.

"The only complaints against Mr. Magee are part of the ongoing investigation," Landry's office responded at the time. "As long as the investigation is still open, the records are considered confidential and cannot be disclosed at the moment. Once the investigation has been officially closed, the records will be available for review."

On Jan. 4, attorneys in Landry's office reiterated that their reasoning for withholding the documents was "temporary and not permanent and we will make the appropriate documents available once the investigation is over."

Landry’s office hired lawyer Vicki Crochet of the firm Taylor Porter to conduct the investigation.

Magee returned to work Jan. 19 after an investigation found that he had "engaged in inappropriate verbal conversations," used sexual slang and made unprofessional comments over the appearance of employees. Landry's office ordered Magee to take a one-time $20,559 salary reduction and directed him to take courses on workplace professionalism and conflict management.

On Jan. 22, Landry's office said the newspaper would receive the requested records within the next week. But soon after, the attorney general sounded a different message.

His lawyers said they had located the complaint filed against Magee, but that they would not release it publicly. Rather than relying on an exemption in the state public records law, Landry's lawyers said they were withholding the complaint because of a constitutional right to privacy and policies within the Attorney General's office and state Civil Service that call for confidentiality in such investigations.

The newspaper offered to make concessions for privacy interests.

"We would invite redaction of the initial complaint to protect the identity of the victim, but that is the only privacy interest even arguably applicable," attorney Scott Sternberg, who represents The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, told Landry's office in a Feb. 2 letter.

Sternberg also argued that Louisiana Civil Service guidance is not an exception to public records law.

Landry's office did not respond to Sternberg’s letter, which threatened legal action, until Friday’s filing.

“You have demanded information which will compromise the rights of our employees and could lead to litigation over the violation of those rights,” Landry’s attorneys wrote in a letter on Friday to Gallo. “Allegations of sexual harassment that turn out to be unsupported, inaccurate and unfounded can destroy marriages, damage employee’s children, wreck families and ruin reputations.”

Sternberg expressed surprise at the attorney general’s actions but said he’s confident the newspaper will prevail.

"Mr. Landry is using taxpayer dollars and the power of his office to punish a citizen for demanding public records about public employees,” Sternberg said. “His office's actions are a perversion of the law and the system. We stand behind the request, and believe the judge will agree with Ms. Gallo that Mr. Landry's actions are arbitrary and capricious."