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View from around the state: Let the public monitor big bank settlement

— From the Wisconsin State Journal

It’s no secret some banks behaved badly during the past decade.

But the Obama administration wants to keep the public in the dark about how well these financial ne’er-do-wells are changing their ways.

A lawsuit quietly moving up through the courts could reaffirm the precedent that government records about bank compliance are public records.

The case in question deals with HSBC Bank. The U.S. Justice Department had prosecuted HSBC for laundering money for drug cartels and other entities and for violating sanctions laws.

Rather than fight it out in court, in 2012, HSBC agreed to pay a $1.92 billion fine and to reform its practices. The Justice Department assigned a corporate compliance monitor to make sure HSBC followed through. That monitor periodically completes reports on HSBC’s progress.

And that’s where the public has been cut out. The court has sealed the monitor’s reports from public view.

One American wasn’t satisfied with that. The citizen moved to intervene in the case. He asked the court to unseal the reports, and a lower court agreed to do so. The unsealing is on hold, though, because the case is on appeal.

HSBC’s opposition to opening the reports is understandable, if detestable. It doesn’t want the bad PR. The less the public knows about what it did and how much it must do to reform, the better for its bottom line. Keeping people in the dark is good business.

More disappointing, however, is the Justice Department siding with the bank and also fighting to keep the reports sealed. Given President-elect Donald Trump’s penchants for secrecy — including his tax returns — he’ll probably stick with President Barack Obama’s position. But we hope we’re wrong, given his pledge to stick up for forgotten Americans.

Trump should show Americans the Justice Department is on their side by dropping the Obama administration’s objections to openness.

Judicial transparency is fundamental to a free and open democracy. If the government can strike deals with bad actors and then keep the implementation secret, people won’t know if justice truly is being served. Indeed, word did get out in the spring that HSBC wasn’t doing good enough.

More than two dozen journalism organizations, including the American Society of News Editors, have filed a brief on behalf of transparency. They rightly note that the courts need a good reason to keep the reports secret. In cases such as this, where there is overwhelming public interest involving newsworthy material, release should be the default.

Even if some parts must be redacted, that is far better than total secrecy.

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