An ongoing lawsuit involving Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump's acting chief of staff, is being shielded from public view, prompting a legal challenge in South Carolina and raising questions about what the court records might reveal about the former Republican congressman.
Brian Gibbons, a judge in South Carolina's 6th Circuit, issued an order in November that sealed a number of documents in a civil case involving two companies that Mulvaney shares an ownership stake in.
Among the records blocked from public disclosure is a sworn deposition of Mulvaney, whose political career launched him from the South Carolina Legislature to Capitol Hill and into Trump's inner circle.
The lawsuit centers on a dispute over a real estate project that Mulvaney and other investors tried to undertake in 2007 during Mulvaney's first term in the South Carolina Statehouse. That business plan ultimately fell apart.
Now, Charles Fonville, a minority partner in the deal, is alleging the companies tied to Mulvaney — Lancaster Collins Road LLC and Indian Land Ventures LLC — have tried to cut him out of the $1.4 million he invested in the property in Lancaster County.
The allegations in the lawsuit are complicated. But the dispute comes down to whether one of Mulvaney's companies can foreclose on the other one and prevent Fonville from getting back the cash he invested in the 14-acre piece of land along U.S. Highway 521.
Members of the U.S. Senate questioned Mulvaney about the property dispute during a confirmation hearing in 2017. The lawsuit in Lancaster County court also garnered local and national media attention last year.
It's with that backdrop that Gibbons agreed to seal the court records in November.
Ginny Jones, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina judicial system, said Gibbons was prohibited from speaking about the orders he issued in the case. Stephen Cox, a Rock Hill attorney representing Fonville and Co., declined to comment for this story.
John Buric, a Charlotte attorney who is representing Mulvaney in the case, initially responded to an email with questions about the case. But he did not respond to a follow-up phone call seeking comment.
But the secretive nature of the lawsuit captured the attention of an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Public Citizen, a progressive think tank, filed a motion last month to lift the seal on the court records.
Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen, questioned if there is a legitimate reason the records are inaccessible. He worries the decision may have been made simply to prevent public scrutiny of Mulvaney's earlier business transactions, and he noted Mulvaney's powerful associations.
“Mulvaney is a high-ranking federal official — indeed, he is both the acting chief of staff for President Donald Trump and director of the Office of Management and Budget," Levy wrote in his motion. "Consequently, there has been considerable media interest in this litigation.”
Levy's motion also emphasized that the "potential for embarrassment" is not enough to warrant court records being sealed.
“It’s just hard to imagine what could be in there that is so sensitive that it has to be concealed,” Levy told The Post and Courier. "That’s why we have these constitutional provisions. This is an individual with a great deal of influence, but that should not make any difference.”
There are several reasons that civil court documents can be sealed in South Carolina, like protecting juveniles and legitimate trade secrets. But the law leans heavily toward making evidence and other court records open to the public.
Eric Robinson, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, questions whether Mulvaney's attorney can really justify withholding the information from the public.
"On the surface, this is a relatively routine business case," said Robinson, who also works with Fenno Law in Mount Pleasant.
More broadly, Robinson said the lawsuit is now about government transparency.
"We don't want courts doing things in secret," he said. "That leads to bad things. They should be accountable to the public, especially in high-profile cases like this."
Levy communicated repeatedly with Mulvaney's attorney earlier this year. It was an attempt to determine the specific legal justification that was used to seal the court records and Mulvaney's deposition.
In emails filed with the court, Buric admitted he personally represents Mulvaney, and he told Levy that his client “wouldn’t agree to lift the seal on the court records.”
Buric did share several records from the lawsuit with Levy, including the judge's order to seal the case. That is also not available to the public online.
Buric hoped that would be enough to dissuade Levy from intervening in the lawsuit.
"I hope this helps convince you there is no there there," Buric wrote.
It didn't. Levy is now waiting on Gibbons to reconsider his order that hid the court records from public view.
Meanwhile, the property dispute has been appealed by Fonville up through the South Carolina court system.