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NASCAR chief makes it a federal case

- gwright@charlotteobserver.com
Wednesday, Jul. 06, 2011

NASCAR chairman Brian France is again trying to keep secret new details about his messy divorce – this time in federal court where he has accused his former wife of tape recording telephone conversations to extort money from him.

France has asked a federal judge to seal documents surrounding those telephone conversations, which involved property distribution, custody of their two children and what’s described in one court document as “sensitive personal and financial matters.”

Although virtually all divorce filings and related documents are public record under N.C. law, France argues that disclosure of the information could harm him both personally and professionally.

“If this Court were to allow the record to remain unsealed, large portions of those illegally recorded conversations and information would be filed on the record for the entire world to see,” France’s attorneys wrote in a request to seal filings in the case.

“This case is a private matter, involving private conversations about private issues….The only interest in allowing the public access to the judicial records and documents in this action is the promotion of a divorce scandal involving a highly regarded public figure.”

Attorneys for the Observer and news partner WCNC-TV on Wednesday filed motions and memoranda opposing the sealing of the documents. They urged the federal judge to reject “Mr. France’s overbroad and unconstitutional attempt to prospectively seal virtually the entire court file.”

“Mr. France is entitled to no better treatment – and deserves no worse – than any other litigant,” the attorneys said. “If any legitimately sensitive information arises over the course of this litigation, this Court has the power to place a particular document containing such information under seal or redact it.”

The Observer’s attorneys said France “trivializes” the public’s interest in obtaining access to the records in the case.

The attorneys for the newspaper and television station said their clients’ “primary interest is ensuring that civil justice is applied fairly and evenly, irrespective of the wealth and power of the parties involved.

“This interest is not outweighed by the tired, redundant and failed arguments of Mr. France.”

Brian France has also sought to keep secret the court proceedings in his lengthy divorce battle in state court. He has accused his ex-wife, Megan France, of violating the conditions of their separation agreement. His attorneys managed in 2008 to persuade a judge to seal the documents in the case – material that is almost always open to the public.

Brian France now wants to scrap the agreement that calls for him to pay the mother of his two children millions of dollars, as well as more than $40,000 a month in alimony and child support.

The Observer and WCNC challenged the state judge’s ruling that sealed the case, asking that it be treated like other cases with hearings and documents open to the public. In February, the N.C. Court of Appeals ordered that the Frances’ litigation be held in open court, and left it to the state judge presiding in the case to decide which, if any, documents should remain sealed.

The Observer last month again asked that those documents be unsealed. A hearing has been set for later this month.

In April, Brian France sued his former wife in federal court, accusing her of illegally tape recording conversations with him without his knowledge or consent. He asked a judge to issue an injunction barring Megan France from engaging in additional “intercepts of wire communications” between the two and distributing the contents of the recordings.

Last week, Brian France’s attorneys filed a motion to seal the documents to keep the details from becoming public.

“Megan France secretly recorded these conversations…without Mr. France’s knowledge or consent, and then she threatened to disclose them to third parties and business associates of Mr. France if he did not meet her financial demands,” one court document alleges.

France claims his interests override the usual presumption of allowing the public to freely access the documents in his case.

“This entire case involves the unauthorized recording and threatened disclosure of sensitive, confidential information that Mr. France rightfully seeks to keep private,” Brian France’s attorneys wrote in one document.

“While the public has a right to access judicial documents, such right exists only when that public interest outweighs any private interest, and that is not the case here.”

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