Alex Wood readily admits that he can be described as a “dissatisfied litigant.” And he would have good reason to be dissatisfied: the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that he, with no formal legal training, personally saw through to a hearing in the Second Court of Appeals failed to net him a key document that he’d been after for almost seven years.
But most galling to Wood was the decision that ended his case, an “intellectually dishonest” “hatchet job” written by a federal judge whose questions during oral argument made him believe that key portions, at a minimum, of his brief went unread.
That judge? Sonia Sotomayor.
“This is a long story,” warns Wood, a reporter for the Journal Inquirer, a 38,000-circulation paper covering suburbs and towns to the east and north of Hartford, Connecticut. And it is only one chapter in Sotomayor’s record of decisions involving the Freedom of Information Act—although one not inconsistent with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’s evaluation that she “skewed more in favor of withholding records … than ordering their release” under the law.
For Wood, it is an unhappy chapter. The tale begins in the mid-nineties, when a handful of inspectors in the Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney’s office, detailed to work alongside FBI agents on a joint fugitive apprehension task force, alleged that the feds were falsifying information in arrest warrant affidavits.
In 1998, one inspector launched a federal civil lawsuit against his supervisor, claiming that he’d been denied promotions and transferred to a less desirable branch office because he discussed the scandal with outsiders. Months later, a jury found that retaliation had occurred, and awarded the inspector $2.7 million dollars, much of it in punitive damages. The state appealed, and during retrial the two sides agreed on a $1.5 million settlement.
“Part of the reason I covered that trial was my own interest in deception in law enforcement,” says Wood. “Before the case went to trial, I put in this Freedom of Information request to find out the facts behind the case.”
The submission asked the FBI and Justice Department for records related to their internal investigations of the allegations, which found that the FBI agents had sworn falsehoods, but resulted in nearly no consequences for the accused.
While Wood’s FOIA request was made shortly before the 1998 trial, the first documents, such as they were, came much later. “It took them a year and half to respond, and initially all I got was twenty-four pages of newspaper articles,” says Wood.
Wood was unsatisfied, and he weighed his options for a lawsuit that might compel the release of more records. But there was one major stumbling block.
“The issue was money,” remembers Wood, who asked three lawyers (two of whom represented state inspectors on the task force) to take the case pro bono or on the small chance they’d be able to recover costs.
“There weren’t any lawyers willing to do it,” says Wood. “And this newspaper certainly wouldn’t pay to do it.”
But Wood, who joined the Journal Inquirer in 1985 and had been covering the courts for over a decade, knew his way around the state’s law libraries and had good sources in the legal community. And he had filed some state-level freedom of information appeals before Connecticut’s court-like Freedom of Information Commission.
“If you do it long enough, you begin to learn some things,” he says. “So I decided to do it pro se.”
In November 2002, acting as his own attorney, Wood filed suit in Connecticut’s federal district court. By coincidence, his case was assigned to the district judge who had heard the inspector’s civil case four years before.
Even though Wood’s request had been denied in four administrative appeals, the agency proved quite responsive after the suit was filed.
“Essentially the FBI spilled their guts. They gave me almost the entire internal investigation, very lightly redacted,” says Wood. “My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe they did that.”
He received over 400 full or partial pages of documents, including investigative interview reports, internal correspondence, and letters laying out the perfunctory administrative sanctions imposed upon the FBI agents in question. Together, they provided the backbone for three articles which, in 2003, were named the best investigative series in the Journal Inquirer’s circulation class by the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists.
Still, Wood remained unsatisfied. Citing privacy exemptions to FOIA, the government had redacted the names of some of the Justice Department officials who had conducted the investigation. And they refused to release what Wood came to view as the crown jewel of the collection, a fourteen-page memo from the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section that presumably recommended the infractions not be referred for prosecution.