The Strange Case of the Sealed Files

J.C. Alvarez might have won the election battle if confidential information hadn't been leaked. That was last year. Now comes the legal battle.

Equally important, Mermell argued, the state attorney's office had released the report in violation of the state law governing sealed criminal files. That law strictly prohibits dissemination of any information contained in a sealed file -- with one limited exception: A person seeking employment with a criminal justice agency must reveal the existence of any sealed files. The prospective employer has the right to examine those files, but not to release any information about them.

At the emergency hearing Reno's office took the position that the investigative report should be considered a public record because Alvarez, as a candidate for clerk of the courts, was in fact seeking employment with a criminal justice agency. His prospective employers were the citizens of Dade County, and they should have the opportunity to review the investigative report, if not his sealed files, especially when someone requests the information.

Circuit Judge Philip Bloom agreed with the state, and denied the request for an injunction. Alvarez lost the election, but his attorney nonetheless asked Judge Bloom to reconsider his decision. On January 7, 1991, Bloom ruled that because the election was over and Alvarez was no longer seeking employment with a criminal justice agency, his records and the state attorney's report were sealed and confidential -- at least until such time as he might again become a candidate for the clerk's job.

Alvarez's attorney challenged Bloom's ruling before the Third District Court of Appeal. This past October the court, in a two-to-one vote, upheld Bloom's decision, saying the issue of an injunction was moot since Alvarez was no longer a candidate and his records were not in any imminent danger of being disclosed. Left unanswered, though, were two compelling questions: Did anyone break the law last year by releasing information contained in Alvarez's sealed files? And what should happen to those files next time he campaigns for the clerk's job?

The pending lawsuits filed by Alvarez against Janet Reno's office, the clerk's office, and Tony Cotarelo may resolve both questions. Alvarez alleges that all three were negligent in performing their duties and that they violated the sealed-records law -- Reno's office by releasing the investigative report, and Cotarelo for discussing with Herald reporter David Lyons the files, the investigation, and the report. The lawsuit against Cotarelo, however, goes further, claiming that he disclosed confidential information to Lyons "with malicious intent and purpose," that his actions "constituted a corrupt use of his official position," and that he did so in order to "secure personal benefit to [his] own lagging campaign."

"I was working hard and succeeding," Alvarez says today, "and suddenly I was a threat to the governor's appointee. I was making the governor look bad because I was beating his guy. I'm sure Cotarelo wasn't happy about that. The state attorney's office released my files and they've indicated that if I became a candidate for clerk of the court, they would release them again in total ignorance of the law. They are not a dictator. They are supposed to go through the courts and do things right, but they have not accepted responsibility for what they did."

Still, Alvarez says he won't let his past troubles keep him from seeking the job again. "A few bad apples do not make everybody in Dade County bad," he says. "There's a lot of good people here who supported me and believe that what the state attorney's office did was wrong. There's a few rotten ones, too, but I can't let that get in my way."

In the end, Alvarez's case may mean as much to taxpayers' pocketbooks as to their legal rights. State Attorney Reno has hired a private law firm to represent her office. County Clerk Marshall Ader, who won the election and whose office is named in Alvarez's lawsuit, is looking for one. And Tony Cotarelo, no longer a public servant, is being represented by the county attorney's office, which says it provides legal counsel to any past or present county employee sued for their conduct while on the job.

"When news about those files came out, it was like I had been shot through the heart. People were asking, `Who are we supporting?'"

Tony Cotarelo took a provocative action: he told Reno's office that Alvarez's criminal records may have been improperly sealed.

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