U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon’s unusual practice of conducting business in his private chambers instead of open court — long discussed among lawyers and prosecutors familiar with District of Columbia federal courts — drew protest from reporters today.
Four reporters who attended a docket-listed hearing before Leon today on a foreign bribery case were left with an empty courtroom after a court officer announced that the status conference would be held in Leon’s private chambers.
The hearing involved the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act settlement reached last September with industrial conglomerate Tyco International Ltd.
Lawyers in the courtroom for the hearing included Kara Brockmeyer, chief of the SEC’s FCPA unit, and SEC lawyer Matthew Greiner. Appearing as counsel for Tyco were Martin Weinstein and Robert Meyer of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP.
Judge Leon never appeared in the courtroom.
Tom Schoenberg, a reporter for Bloomberg News, stood up in the audience said: “I think these proceedings should be held in open court.” But as the judge wasn’t present, there was no official transcript made of his complaint.
The SEC and Willkie Farr lawyers then filed past the jury box and into the chambers. The door closed.
Schoenberg asked the court officer to go into Leon’s chambers and object to the closed-door session. The court officer returned with a note apparently from Leon’s clerk directing the reporters to speak with the staff attorney for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Jenna Gatski Einstein. Reporters then lodged a complaint with Chief Judge Royce Lamberth.
After about an hour, the lawyers filed out of the judge’s chambers. Leon never appeared. The lawyers declined to comment.
In the Tyco case, the conglomerate agreed in September to a $13 million civil settlement related to allegations of violations of the FCPA in more than a dozen countries. Tyco also settled in September with the Department of Justice.
Leon hasn’t yet approved the Tyco civil settlement. It isn’t known what the hang-up is, because Leon held the status conference in private session.
In December, Leon threw a wrench into another SEC foreign bribery settlement, this time with IBM Corp., saying he would not approve the agreement until IBM agreed to report any future potential FCPA violations to the court. Leon also met privately in chambers with the IBM and government lawyers before finally holding a session in open court on Dec. 20, in which he tongue-lashed lawyers for both sides.