Judge denies request for gag order, rules to unseal Andy Patrick's case

dburley@islandpacket.comFebruary 20, 2014 

A judge ordered state Rep. Andy Patrick's divorce case to be unsealed Wednesday and denied his attorney's request for a gag order in the case. Patrick's attorney had argued that information related to the case should not be made public, including material he described as sensitive and involving the CIA, FBI and Secret Service.

Judge Vicki Snelgrove said proper procedure was not followed when Beaufort County Family Court Judge Peter Fuge sealed Patrick's divorce case in July.

"I can't find where the procedure was followed before the files were sealed," Snelgrove, a visiting judge from Aiken, said during a hearing in Beaufort. State court rules require judges and lawyers to take specific steps before a case file can be sealed, but in the Patricks' case, they weren't.

The motion to unseal the case was filed Jan. 20 by attorney Jay Bender of Columbia, who represents The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

Bender argued Wednesday that the state's constitution requires the party that wants a case to remain sealed, in this instance Patrick, to prove a significant government interest was jeopardized if the files were opened.

The newspapers want to review the entire case file because some documents that Patrick's estranged wife has already shared raise questions about his qualifications as an elected official.

Patrick, whose financial troubles were detailed in court documents and subsequently in newspapers, dropped out of the state superintendent of education race last month and said he will not seek re-election to the state House of Representatives after his term ends later this year.

Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, did not attend Wednesday's hearing because the legislature was in session.

In an effort to prevent further publicity about the case, Patrick's attorney, Doug Brannon, asked for a gag order on Feb. 1. In court Wednesday, Brannon argued for the order, which would have prevented the Patricks, their lawyers and anyone else directly involved in the case from speaking about it with others.

Brannon said a gag order was justified, in part, to prevent sensitive information in government documents related to the divorce case from being aired. Some documents concern national security matters and should be kept confidential, Brannon said.

"Some of these files have significant interest to the U.S. government," Brannon said.

Brannon said he and Patrick met with agents from the CIA two weeks ago at The Palmetto Club, a business club in Columbia, to discuss the files.

"I was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement about that," Brannon told the judge. "Many of these documents, they don't want anyone to know exist."

When the judge asked for proof of the meeting, Brannon said the agents did not allow him to make copies of the agreement. He said the agents expressed surprise that he even asked.

The sensitive documents Brannon mentioned were taken by Patrick's estranged wife, Amee, from file cabinets in Patrick's office at the couple's former home in Timbercrest, off Spanish Wells Road on Hilton Head, he said.

Lauren Martel, Amee Patrick's lawyer, said her client took the files while cleaning out the house. She said the files had been left unattended in the office for several months before Amee Patrick collected them.

Martel and Amee Patrick have met recently with government agencies to return the document from the files, Martel said.

"None of the documents are so secretive that they would cause this court to issue a gag order," Martel said.

The judge seemed to agree, commenting that if government agencies were as concerned as Brannon claimed about damage from publicity about the documents, they could have appeared in court to argue that the case remain sealed.

"If (the government agencies) aren't here arguing it, I don't think they are that interested in it," Snelgrove said.

Some of the documents date back to Patrick's time in the Secret Service, Brannon said. Others involve Patrick's business, Advanced Point Global, a security firm that worked with clients who signed non-disclosure agreements.

Brannon, a Republican House member from Spartanburg, said he didn't think sensitive documents were in the case file unsealed Wednesday, but he said affidavits in the file could allude to the "secret files."

One affidavit he mentioned was given by Amee Patrick and referred to counterfeit bills she found in the filing cabinet, he said.

Brannon said the bills -- totaling about $3,710, according the FBI -- date back to Patrick's time with the Secret Service and were unusable because they were labeled with the agency's inventory markings.

It is not unusual for a Secret Service member to have such bills, Brannon said in court.

Secret Service officials, however, say agents are required to turn in official documents and evidence when they leave the agency.

After the hearing Brannon was pressed on whether it was proper for a former Secret Service agent to keep counterfeit money after resigning, as Patrick did in 2007.

"I don't know the answer to that," he said.

Andy Patrick said in a statement released Wednesday that he notified the Secret Service about the counterfeit money as soon as he learned his wife had found it.

The agency "found no wrongdoing on my part," the statement said.

Brannon said the instance illustrated why a gag order was warranted. He said the counterfeit money issue hasn't been put in its proper context.

As the hearing ended, Judge Snelgrove made a brief statement.

"I don't think it's smart for people to try their case in the street," she added, alluding to the publicity about the case. "But I don't think I have the right to tell people they can't do stupid things."

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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