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Charlotte Observer, others ask to unseal David Petraeus documents

Retired General David Petraeus arrives for his consolidated plea and sentencing hearings at the U.S. Courthouse in Charlotte, Thursday, April 23, 2015. The former commanding general and CIA director is accused of sharing top government secrets with his biographer, Paula Broadwell of Charlotte.
Retired General David Petraeus arrives for his consolidated plea and sentencing hearings at the U.S. Courthouse in Charlotte, Thursday, April 23, 2015. The former commanding general and CIA director is accused of sharing top government secrets with his biographer, Paula Broadwell of Charlotte. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Nine news organizations, including The Charlotte Observer, asked a federal court Monday to unseal a memorandum and letters used in the sentencing of David Petraeus for providing classified information to his biographer and former lover.

In an agreement with prosecutors, Petraeus pleaded guilty last week to a misdemeanor count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information. U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler of Charlotte sentenced the former CIA director and military commander to two years’ probation and a $100,000 fine.

Petraeus’ sentence has prompted harsh criticism, with some contending a lower-level official would have received prison time for giving away government secrets. But David Kendall, an attorney representing Petraeus, has argued publicly that Petraeus’ crime was less serious than other highly publicized leaks because none of the information was revealed to the public. Kendall declined comment on Monday.

The news organizations filed a motion seeking the unsealing of a sentencing memorandum and nearly three dozen letters of support for Petraeus.

Such sentencing reports usually contain aggravating and mitigating factors used to help determine a defendant’s punishment. The documents are routinely made public, including in recent high-profile government leak cases, said Hanna Bloch-Wehba, a fellow for the Reporters Committee For Freedom Of The Press.

She said the Petraeus records are shielded from public view under an unusual rule.

The federal court district for Western North Carolina, which covers Charlotte, allows attorneys to file documents under seal that refer to a presentence investigative report, Bloch-Wehba said. She said she did not know of any other federal court jurisdictions that had the same rule.

Thursday’s court motion was filed on behalf of The Reporters Committee For Freedom Of The Press and the Observer as well as The Associated Press; Bloomberg L.P.; Dow Jones & Co.; First Look Media Inc.; National Public Radio Inc.; The New York Times Co. and The Washington Post.

“The First Amendment guarantees the public’s right to view court records and attend court proceedings so the public will have confidence in our court system and the decisions our courts reach,” said Jon Buchan, a Charlotte attorney representing the news organizations. “It’s up to those seeking to seal court records to demonstrate that sealing is essential to a compelling societal interest and narrowly tailored to accomplish that goal.”

A spokeswoman for acting U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose could not be reached for comment.

According to court records, Petraeus, 62, shared classified information with Paula Broadwell of Charlotte and then lied about it to the FBI.

Rose has said Petraeus received the sentence that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder felt was appropriate.

Kelly: 704-358-5027

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