More than two years after federal agents took the rare step of raiding the offices of two of Baltimore’s most prominent law firms, the resulting criminal case against two attorneys is shrouded in secrecy.
Federal prosecutors and a specially-appointed judge have sealed nearly all of the recent filings and motions in the federal racketeering and obstruction of justice case against attorneys Kenneth Ravenell and Joshua Treem, keeping it almost completely out of the public’s view as it moves toward an early December trial.
Such secrecy is highly unusual, except in national security or terrorism cases, experts say, and some think it may be unconstitutional by blocking the public’s access to the courts.
The prosecution of Ravenell and Treem is being watched closely by Baltimore’s legal community as the government goes after two of the city’s most successful defense attorneys, who argue that the prosecutors are criminalizing their strong defense work.
But with weeks to go before the Dec. 6 trial, which doesn’t even show on the court docket, little is known about the legal fight because so much has been sealed at the request of prosecutors. Two weeks ago, there were 20 new filings — and 18 of them were either sealed documents, motions to seal or orders to seal.
“This is a matter of huge public interest in this area and it is frustrating that a person trying to find out what’s going on with the case cannot find any substantive information,” said Andrew C. White, a former federal prosecutor who is not involved in the case. “It should not happen this way at all.”
Since a motions hearing in open court over the summer, the overwhelming majority of filings have been made under seal, with little explanation as to why. The federal judge overseeing the case, Liam O’Grady, has sealed his own rulings from public view.
O’Grady is a senior judge — a form of semi-retirement — in the U.S. District Court of Virginia. He’s overseeing the case due to potential conflicts of interest with federal judges in Maryland. He has not responded to two letters from The Baltimore Sun asking why the proceedings are so heavily restricted.
Late last month, O’Grady issued several orders to seal rulings from earlier motions dating to the spring.
“The Court has the inherent power to seal materials submitted to it,” O’Grady wrote in one ruling. “That said, information submitted in connection with judicial proceedings is presumptively open to the public.”
In the ruling, he said a judge must cite specific factual findings to justify sealing documents. But he doesn’t cite any such justification in the order, which is described as “temporary.”
Contacted by The Sun, Lucius Outlaw, Ravenell’s lead attorney, said he believes more of the proceedings should be public.
“Mr. Ravenell was publicly charged by an indictment containing damaging allegations about his conduct and character,” Outlaw said in a statement. “It is certainly his desire that the public be privy to his defense to the unfounded allegations and to the progress of the case as reflected in the case docket.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment, as did attorneys for Treem and a third co-defendant, Sean Gordon.
It is not unusual for a few files to be sealed in federal cases, both civil and criminal, often to shield the names of potential witnesses or victim information, or trade and corporate secrets.
But Retired U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin said in an interview that “the general idea is that things should be open unless there’s really a compelling need.”
Smalkin said reasons for sealing filings in a criminal case likely would have to do with protecting a witness. Sometimes, such as in national security cases, he said the government might choose not to bring a case at all rather than have to disclose information it doesn’t want public.
But three law professors focused on transparency recently wrote on the web site Just Security that “when it comes to sealing, the federal courts are a procedural Wild West.”
While judges are required to follow a “strict test” in ensuring sealing is narrowly tailored, in practice “there is no guarantee that any given court or judge will even require lawyers to file a formal request to seal or submit arguments in support, or that it will even issue a public judicial decision explaining what was sealed and why,” wrote professors Heather Abraham of the University of Buffalo School of Law, Jonathan Manes of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law and Alex Abdo of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute.
“Sealing court records should be a last resort to protect extremely sensitive information, and even then, courts should explain any sealing clearly on the public record,” they said in a statement to The Sun. “This principle applies in both civil cases and criminal ones, but courts very often neglect it.
“The result is that the public is often denied the constitutional right to witness the work of our courts.”
The case against Ravenell and Treem has been in the works for years. Ravenell represented a marijuana boss and nightclub impresario named Richard Byrd, who trafficked marijuana across the country and was indicted in 2014. While Byrd’s case was pending, federal agents raided Ravenell’s office at the firm of William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. No charges were filed at the time, and Ravenell hasn’t handled a single case in federal court since.
Byrd was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison in 2017, and the case seemed over. But prosecutors pushed forward with criminal charges against Ravenell in 2019, raiding his office and the office of a firm that represents him in July and then charging him in September with helping Byrd, laundering money and trying to quiet witnesses.
Despite the charges, Ravenell continues to handle cases in the state courts as a criminal defense attorney and civil plaintiffs attorney. Those cases include a lawsuit in conjunction with the ACLU over the police killing of Anton Black on the Eastern Shore and the ongoing litigation related to the fatal shooting of Korryn Gaines in Baltimore County.
Then last year, prosecutors added another prominent defense attorney, Treem, and Gordon as defendants, charging them with conspiring with Ravenell to obstruct justice when they met with Byrd in jail.
Defense attorneys have accused the government of misconduct, crying foul over a secret recording of Treem meeting with Byrd in jail and saying his actions were part of representing his client, Ravenell. One motion to seal filed this week indicated that the parties continue to argue over whether the government complied with requirements to turn over information, but the document filing itself is sealed.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise, who has handled a number of high-profile corruption cases. Re-joining the case recently was Derek Hines, who prosecuted the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force with Wise and had investigated the Ravenell case but left to work for the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia.
Before this summer, there were some sealed filings and other motions in which certain portions were redacted. A motions hearing was held in Alexandria, Virginia, in the summer, during which some of the arguments were under seal, but it was mostly open.
But months have passed and there are no filings indicating that O’Grady ruled on the motions. Outlaw, Ravenell’s lead attorney, said some of the sealed motions are in fact rulings from O’Grady. He said he could not discuss the content or outcome of the rulings.
White, the former federal prosecutor, said the government typically requests that things be sealed and is getting its way in the Ravenell case.
“It’s a government’s paradise,” he said.