By: The Associated Press
(AP) A federal judge may have improperly barred a newspaper intern from the arraignment of a prominent grocery chain manager, The Brownsville Herald reported Tuesday.
Jaime Miguel Lopez, one of the operators of the 13-store Lopez supermarket chain, pleaded guilty Monday to cashing more than $500,000 worth of stolen U.S. Treasury checks. In exchange for the plea, he agreed to help investigators with cases related to the scheme.
But the newspaper says it learned about the plea only after filing a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
Before the hearing, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, acting on a request by Lopez’s attorneys, ordered the courtroom cleared of anyone not involved in the case. A bailiff escorted out newspaper intern Pate McMichael, the only such person in the room.
Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights project, said the First Amendment gives the media the same access to courtrooms as the public and the reporter had the right to stay.
Hanen told The Associated Press he could not comment publicly on the incident or the case.
Details on Lopez’s plea agreement were released Monday afternoon after the newspaper filed its records request.
The court records showed that Lopez admitted to fraudulently endorsing checks stolen in Mexico and brought across the border, mixing them in with his supermarket receipts. He then deposited the checks into a bank account and then withdrew cash to split with those who acquired the stolen checks.
The scheme was revealed when Lopez’s bank got charged for the bad checks — losing nearly $1.2 million in one day in February 2000, when Lopez deposited $657,533 in checks and other receipts and withdrew $514,875 in cash.
Lopez faces up to 10 years in prison and restitution of more than $1 million when he is sentenced Oct. 16.