Hillborough County Attorney

Hillsborough County Attorney John Coughlin delivers a case binder to the court clerk during a hearing last month.

A judge has allowed the Union Leader Corp. and First Amendment advocates to intervene in a criminal case where the operation of the office of Hillsborough County Attorney John Coughlin has become a key issue.

At issue could be whether a binder of nearly 500 documents compiled by Coughlin will eventually be made public.

Coughlin, a Republican, said the documents would disclose the inner workings of his office and are privileged information.

The Union Leader and the New England First Amendment Coalition have said such records should be public because they will shed light on the operation of the office.

For years, the Hillsborough County Attorney office has been plagued with underfunding, high staff turnover and questions of competency of the elected county attorney.

Coughlin, a retired judge, was elected last November in a contest that focused on his predecessor’s operation of the office.

“Nowhere within the field of governmental accountability is the light of public scrutiny more critical than when it shines within our courts of law,” wrote Gregory V. Sullivan, who represents the Union Leader and the First Amendment organization in the case.

Sullivan has urged Judge William Delker to examine the file and determine what material should be released. In a filing last week, Coughlin’s office said it wants 301 of 499 pages exempt from public disclosure.

Coughlin said state law exempts the material from disclosure.

“We’re protecting the interests of the County Attorney’s Office, the employees and their privacy,” he said.

He wants Delker to hold back a policies and procedures manual, memos of meetings with Attorney General prosecutors, memos about on-boarding and off-boarding of employees, inner-office job functions, internal communications and police records.

Coughlin submitted his office’s records to Delker after the judge complained about missed deadlines on the prosecutor’s part. The case is from 2020 and involves a defendant, Carlos Marsach, who is charged with reckless conduct with a deadly weapon.

In September, Delker issued an order lambasting missed deadlines and attributed them to an “administrative breakdown” in Coughlin’s office and “culpable neglect” by the office. He called for sanctions against Coughlin.

According to Coughlin’s office, prosecutors aren’t the only ones missing deadlines.

In a partially unsealed document, Coughlin’s prosecutor in the case accused the public defender of not responding to a written offer of a plea bargain in the case.

And Coughlin’s first assistant prosecutor, Shawn Sweeney, told the Union Leader that Marsach’s defense attorney was months late in missing a deadline for filing a notice of self-defense.

“Here’s a deadline that’s been missed for over six months, but we’re not hearing anything about sanctions for the other side,” Sweeney said.

The case isn’t scheduled to go to trial until March 2022.