Backstory on how I obtained the first-ever-released copy of Newt's 1980 divorce file:
On Wednesday, December 21, 2011, I met CNN reporter Alan Duke for lunch the Morningside Cafe, a restaurant in Carrollton owned by Alan’s brother. It was a personal lunch; not business — he’s from Carrollton and we’ve known each other for years.
Alan had started out as a news reporter at Carrollton’s WLBB AM radio station before moving over to CNN Radio in nearby Atlanta, then over to CNN.com after the Internet came of age. CNN had recently moved him out to Hollywood to become the most widely-read reporter in the country, covering the 2009 death of Michael Jackson and 2010 trial of Anna Nicole Smith attorney Howard K. Stern, among every other top Hollywood story.
Because of his Carrollton connections, CNN had temporarily taken Alan off of entertainment news and flown him back to Carrollton to write an investigative article on Newt’s first divorce. Alan had interviewed several people and for the most part already had his story written.
But he was missing one thing.
The divorce file.
A good watermelon-seed spitter could spit the distance we were from the courthouse. And Alan had just come from there with disappointing news: the divorce file was sealed.
“Based on what?”
“I don’t know the technical reasons, but that file will never see the light of day.”
While I didn't particularly care what was contained in a 30-year-old file, the mere fact that it was sealed piqued my interest. I figured it’s a lot like a birth certificate — if there’s nothing to hide, why not just show it to all of us?
By case law and by court rule in Georgia, all civil litigation files are to be open to the public unless a specific law prohibits public access (extraordinarily rare) or unless a judge has sealed the file after weighing the potential harm to the parties’ privacy against the public’s interest in disclosure.
As our Supreme Court said in Atlanta Journal Constitution v. Long et al., 258 Ga. 410, 369 S.E.2d 755 (1988):
“Public access protects litigants both present and future, because justice faces its gravest threat when courts dispense it secretly. Our system abhors star chamber proceedings with good reason. Like a candle, court records hidden under a bushel make scant contribution to their purpose.”
Many people, including judges, do not realize the extremely high bar set for sealing a divorce. And since the court rule which codifies the balancing requirement came into existence after the Gingrich divorce, I thought there was a good chance that proper procedure had not been followed.
”I can’t believe after all these years they think they can still keep that file from public view.”
“Well, it is what it is and I’m just going to do my article without it.”
“This just isn’t right. I tell you what...give me a day and I’ll come back down here tomorrow and file a motion to have the the file unsealed.”
“Well I can tell you this…CNN is not going to approve paying attorney fees to try to do something that’s probably not going to get done anyway.”
“Not asking for money; I’ll do it on my own, representing myself. As a citizen, I have a right to see public documents.”
My mashed potatoes were cold.
Alan went back to his hotel in Atlanta to finish the story.
I went home to prepare my motion.
It would be a two-step process. A motion to intervene in a closed case for the purpose of then moving to have it unsealed.
All motions in Georgia must be accompanied by a memorandum of law citing the legal authority for whatever action is being requested of the court. Which is fine by me, because I wasn’t about to go in there half-cocked making a naked request without undeniable authority.
In the rain and tracking through construction-mud flowing from the newly-constructed courthouse behind the existing courthouse, I first went to the clerk's filing office on the ground floor. Amy — the very nice and friendly young lady behind the counter — went on for a few minutes about how much I look and sound like my brother, Vance, a Carroll County Deputy Sheriff assigned to courthouse security, by whom all who desire to enter or leave the courthouse must pass.
Amy would have been Magenta in the Carroll County Community Theatre's production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, had someone not shown Mayor Garner a video clip of a particular rehearsal scene which had been posted on YouTube. He immediately nixed the production because it was not “in keeping with the moral standards of the community” — the same community which gave Newt to America.
I prefaced my inquiry by saying that I already knew that Newt’s file was sealed, but I was only asking for a copy of the order sealing the file (because I needed some information from the sealing order to insert into a couple of blank lines which I had left in the motion which was tucked away in my hip pocket).
But when I mentioned that I knew that it was sealed, she very gregariously said, "Oh, yes! A lot of people have been asking for it, but it's sealed!" She went on to say that the files had been removed from where they would normally be located and were now in Clerk Alan Lee's office upstairs.
As I started out the door, I asked if she could tell me who in particular had asked for the files recently and she said that Bloomberg News had been there the previous Friday and another news organization had been at her counter "a couple of days ago" and she had informed both that the files were sealed.
So up the stairs I went to the larger area of the clerk’s office (the clerk’s office is in about four disconnected locations within the rambling 1928 courthouse) which houses the deed vault, the elected clerk's actual office and an open area where three ladies sit at desks facing a counter.
Standing at the counter, I asked to see Clerk Lee and was told that he was next door in a meeting inside the new courthouse. The lady at the desk on the right, Kathryn, asked if there was something she could help me with. So I repeated to her that I simply wanted a copy of the order sealing Newt’s divorce file, explaining that I understood that the file itself was sealed.
When I said "sealed," she blurted out, “Oh, yeah! That file is sealed!” So I asked her if other people had been in their office asking to see the file and she said there had been several, but she could only name Bloomberg.
I then asked if anyone had ever tried to get it unsealed. She rather emphatically exclaimed, “That file will never be unsealed!” I explained again that I only wanted a copy of the sealing order and I asked if she could just get that one page from the top of the file in Clerk Lee’s office and copy it for me.
“I’ll text the clerk.”
So I propped up on the lone bar stool near the counter and appeared engrossed in my Samsung Galaxy Tab, dreading the significant amount of my time that I knew was about to be wasted.
A few minutes went by. The phone on Kathryn’s desk rang.
“Yeah...he says he just wants a copy of the sealing order......yeah......uh-huh......it's Vance's brother......okay.”
She turns to me, “He said there is no sealing order because it isn’t sealed.”
“Well, does that mean I can look at it?”
A surprisingly confusing question.
But it was my fault. I had made it clear that I did not want to see the file; that I only wanted a copy of the order sealing the file. So since there was no order sealing the file, my inquiry had been answered.
I then explained that now I did want to see the file, since there was no order sealing it.
“You’ll have to see Clerk Lee to do that.”
Back to my Galaxy Tab.
More time goes by. But I’m nothing if not bulldogishly stubborn. So I wait.
The First Baptist Church of Carrollton sits directly across the street from the courthouse. It's the same church which held a food drive to collect groceries to put food on the table for Newt's minor daughters when his $60K taxpayer-provided government check was otherwise occupied with the more pressing needs of himself and his mistress back in Washington.
If Santa’s sled were parked in the clerk’s office, Rudolph’s nose would be quietly ringing the outermost bell in the First Baptist bell tower.
The bells can be enjoyed at a comfortable decibel-level a mile across town.
And they toll every 15 minutes.
And on the hour, they play an entire verse and chorus of Amazing Grace, more of which I was needing, the longer I waited.
I looked up from my Galaxy Tab and asked if Clerk Lee knew I was waiting.
“Yeah, he knows.”
Then a conversation ensued between the lady at the middle desk and Kathryn as to whether maybe Kathryn should text him again to make sure that he had understood that since there was no sealing order, I now wanted to see the file and I was patiently waiting for him to show it to me.
For a moment the bells had competition as Christina Aguilera belted out, “I am beautiful in every single way” from somewhere deep within my pocket.
I stepped out into the hall to take the call from My Lovely Laura who wanted to make sure I wasn’t being detained against my will as I was long past my estimated return time. I seated myself at a vacant desk in the hall which had served as sort of a concierge post in times of budgetary plentiness, as we decided to meet for dinner at the Corner Café, a quirky little eatery on the town square which “proudly serves strange food,” mostly on focaccia bread.
Not long afterwards, a very tall gentleman came walking down the hall towards me. "Are you Craig?" Extremely nice and very cordial, Clerk Lee apologized for my wait and invited me into his office to look at the file as he explained what had happened.
He said he was aware that there was a “rumor” that Newt’s file was sealed and he knew that the rumor had emanated from his office. And he knew how it had gotten started.
Apparently, at some point during the long-running administration of the previous clerk — who left office around the time his brother hit the $133 million jackpot of the Georgia lottery — there had been some concern that someone might try to steal the original file from the courthouse, so the deputy clerk at the time had put the file in a special hiding place.
That was years ago. And Clerk Lee knew nothing about it.
But when this current political season started several months ago, Clerk Lee had a similar concern and asked Amy (downstairs) to bring the file up to his office for safekeeping. When Amy couldn’t locate it where it should have been, she called a now-retired deputy-clerk who told her about the special hiding place.
It was in that conversation — the one between Amy and the retired deputy-clerk — that the “sealed” rumor began; the retired deputy-clerk mentioned that she thought the case might have been sealed.
Clerk Lee continued explaining to me that Amy had then located the files and brought them up to his office where he reviewed them and couldn’t find an order sealing them. So out of an abundance of caution, he called one of the attorneys who had represented Mrs. Gingrich and that attorney had told him that he didn’t remember the files being sealed and didn’t know of any reason why they should be sealed.
Clerk Lee then re-called the retired deputy-clerk and she reiterated that she only thought they could have been sealed at some point, but wasn’t sure. So they had all collectively come to the conclusion that these files which had been hidden for several years, were, in fact, not sealed.
I pointed out that maybe he could let Amy know about that since she runs the filing counter downstairs and obviously didn’t know about their final determination, as she had told Bloomberg on Friday and CNN yesterday, that the files were sealed.
As the copier was running, I went back into the hall and called Alan.
”The files aren’t sealed. They’re making me a copy right now.”
”What?!?! Oh, hell! I’ve already filed my story with the producer!”
”I’ll get you a copy.”
I walked back in to get my copy. Clerk Lee was on the phone.
”Yes, Alan, I’m very sorry. I didn’t know you had been told that it was sealed. Look, I’ll wait as long necessary for you to come back down here and get a copy.”
Still, the satisfaction of getting access to documents which had been hidden from public view for so many years, was tempered by the knowledge that I had a really great — but now totally wasted — motion and memorandum brief still in my hip pocket.
But I was excited. I had a national scoop. I was going to write about this on my Daily Kos blog and share it on Facebook and finally break my record of 10 “likes.”
Thursday night I faxed the file to Alan’s hotel room in Atlanta.
We talked several times that night, as we were both combing over the details.
And at some point in our conversations, he educated me on two principles of journalism:
1.) Professional news organizations don’t just print a story about a person out of the blue and catch that person off-guard. They first show the story to the person and get that person’s response, to be included in the story. So CNN would have to show their story to Newt and get his input before publishing it.
2.) Timing is important for maximum exposure. This is Thursday night; Friday is a bad day to break a story because people aren’t paying attention to the news. For the same reason, Saturday and Sunday are not good days for news, but especially this particular Saturday and Sunday — Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
CNN won’t be running the story until Monday.
“So, Craig, could you please not put your story and the divorce file on Facebook until after CNN runs their story?”
Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” earlier today:
“Alan Duke, our CNN reporter who broke this exclusive story, is actually from Newt’s hometown of Carrollton, Georgia and went back there for this exclusive CNN story and he joins us live here in New York. Alan, I understand you had to do some real digging for this story, including crawling around in the basement of the courthouse….”
Comments are closed on this story.