By Peter H. Milliken
A federal judge did not find Atty. Scott Cochran of Youngstown in contempt of court for releasing to The Vindicator a series of text messages from a religious- discrimination lawsuit that was settled by the city of Youngstown.
“In this case, reasonable lawyers could differ,” in their interpretations of a court order concerning public release of materials from case documents, U.S. District Judge Christopher A. Boyko ruled from the bench Tuesday.
Cochran represented the Islamic Society of Greater Youngstown, which sought public release of sealed documents after the case was settled to call attention to discrimination against Muslims and promote tolerance for them.
Late last year, the city gave a $110,000 lump-sum settlement and a $4,000 annual pay raise to Bassil Ally, a Muslim of Middle Eastern descent, who is an assistant city prosecutor. The judge ruled that Ally suffered unlawful religious discrimination and retaliation while employed by the city.
The city had requested that Cochran be found in contempt of court for releasing to the newspaper a series of texts allegedly exchanged between city Prosecutor Jay Macejko and assistant city Prosecutor Bret Hartup, which included a derogatory reference to President Barack Obama.
Macejko denied writing or sending the Obama message in 2009, said he didn’t see it until Feb. 13, 2012, and suggested it might be spam.
The release to The Vindicator occurred during this year’s Democratic primary campaign for Mahoning County prosecutor, in which Macejko challenged Paul J. Gains and lost by 561 votes. Cochran supported Gains.
With the judge’s ruling legitimizing the documents, including the derogatory text message, Mayor Charles Sammarone said he’ll talk today to city Law Director Anthony Farris to “see what legal direction I can go in the future.”
But, he said, there will be a “full investigation” into the matter.
“I was waiting for this hearing,” Sammarone said.
A three-member panel — Farris, police Lt. Brian Butler of internal affairs, and Jonathan Huff, executive director of the city’s Human Relations Commission — will conduct the investigation, Sammarone said.
The mayor said he’ll review the results of that investigation before he considers taking any disciplinary action against Macejko, city prosecutor since January 2006.
Sammarone also said he wants to “get to a point where the judge decides to unseal” all of the documents in the case.
Saying some people are accusing city officials of trying to hide something by not commenting on the Ally-case documents, the city’s lawyer, Kenneth P. Abbarno, asked Judge Boyko when the court will publicly release all sealed documents and other case materials with the court-ordered redactions.
Judge Boyko concluded the hearing by saying: “I will move quickly.”
The city said the release to The Vindicator violated Judge Boyko’s order that, before the contents of any documents are publicly released, the documents be submitted to the court with redaction of medical and other information that would compromise privacy and redaction of information concerning pending criminal cases.
One of the released texts contained an unredacted reference to someone undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging scan, which is a medical diagnostic test, Abbarno complained in court.
Cochran said he understood the judge’s order to refer to documents filed under seal with the court and not to what he released, which was derived from evidentiary materials that were exchanged between parties in the case, but not filed with the court.
“I thought I was allowed to do what I was doing ... I didn’t like the way that he had been treated,” Cochran said, referring to Ally. “I apologize for misinterpreting this court’s order,” Cochran added.
“I appreciate your candor. I think you spoke from the heart,” Judge Boyko told Cochran.
However, the judge said of lawyers: “The first priority is to be an officer of the court and to try and stay above the fray of a political race.”
Although lawyers could reasonably have varying interpretations of his order, the judge said Cochran’s view “may have been shaded by his perspective” of the Ally case and the county prosecutor’s race.
Cochran, who could have been fined or jailed and had his law license threatened if the judge had found him in contempt, said after court that he was greatly relieved by the judge’s ruling.
“I have a lot of respect for the court, particularly with what the judge just did. He was able to take a step back and take a look and realize that there’s another side to this, and that’s something that not every judge is capable of doing,” Cochran said.
“I did not do what I did to try to violate a court order. I was trying to bend over backwards not to,” he said.
However, he concluded: “I would have sought to release this information whether he [Macejko] was running for office or not because I think that the public should know about what happened. It’s a city office.”
Contributor: Staff writer David Skolnick