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Experts: Records law has holes

Associated Press

IDAHO FALLS – An eastern Idaho judge has issued an order to conceal records about a court case involving a Boy Scout leader convicted in 1998 of molesting children, prompting criticism from legal observers across the state who called Idaho’s records laws weak and “full of loopholes.”

Seventh District Judge W. H. Woodland issued the order for a recent case involving Brad Stowell, the Boy Scout leader who pleaded guilty to molesting children at Boy Scout Camp Little Lemhi in Swan Valley.

In addition, two separate court records involving Stowell are missing.

Former Idaho Supreme Court justices and college professors criticized the handling of the case in Bonneville County, saying “secret justice” could lead to government abuse of power.

Rule 32 in the Idaho Court Administrative handbook determines all court papers are assumed open except in certain cases when parts of files can be sealed to protect trade secrets, adoption records, unserved search warrants and judge performance evaluations.

It does not say whether a judge can strike a case from the public record.

“There’s no ability to be a watchdog if things happen in the dark,” said University of Idaho law professor James Macdonald.

A court official interrupted an interview last week with an Idaho Falls Post-Register reporter and took Woodland’s order to strike a case involving Stowell from the record from the reporter.

Court clerks will not divulge information about the case.

In addition, a letter from 7th District Court denied the newspaper’s request to examine Woodland’s order to remove the case from the court record system.

It said the order was a part of the file, which cannot be disclosed.

Former Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntly said that even in sealed cases information like the case number, dates, outcome and information about why it was sealed should be available to the public.

Roy Atwood, the University of Idaho professor who wrote the standard open records guide for the state of Idaho, said Idaho’s open records laws are notorious for loopholes and for weak penalties that make hiding records easy.

“I don’t know if someone can legally make cases disappear or how often it happens,” Atwood said. “Maybe someone with good connections can do that — and I don’t know how you’d find out about it.”

There is still an unresolved civil lawsuit against Stowell and the Boy Scouts of America. Chad Purser is suing the Scouts and the council, claiming they were negligent in hiring Stowell to work at Camp Little Lemhi.

The case ended in mistrial in 2001 after a judge ruled that a witness made a comment that shouldn’t have been allowed.

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