(CN) - The Department of Justice cannot categorically refuse to turn over documents related to the FBI's investigation of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's relationship with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's.
The FBI opened a corruption investigation into Abramoff activities in 2004.
Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiring to cheat his clients, Native American tribes, of an estimated $85 million in fees, and bribing members of Congress. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Two former DeLay staff members, Michael Scanlon
and Tony Rudy, were indicted along with 19 others in the Abramoff scandal.
The FBI never acknowledged whether DeLay himself was a subject of inquiry during the investigation.
DeLay announced in 2010 that the Justice Department had informed him he would not be criminally charged with any involvement with Abramoff's activities.
The former House Majority Leader was separately indicted and convicted in 2010 of laundering $190,000 from one of his political action committees, a conviction
that was thrown out last year.
Shortly after DeLay's announcement, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a Freedom of Information Act seeking documents related to the FBI's investigation of DeLay.
The Federal Court denied the request, finding the documents exempt because DeLay and other third parties have "substantial privacy interests" in keeping the documents private.
But the D.C. Circuit ruled Tuesday that the Justice Department cannot justify withholding the documents in their entirety.
"DeLay's privacy interest in the contents of the investigative files is not insubstantial," Judge Karen Henderson wrote.
"On the other side of the scale sits a weighty public interest in shining a light on the FBI's investigation of major political corruption and the DOJ's ultimate decision not to prosecute a prominent member of the Congress for any involvement he may have had," the judge continued.
There are substantial interests on both sides of the case, Henderson found, but the district court "drastically understated the public interest," in reviewing the Justice Department's investigation of a top politician.
"Although a substantial privacy interest is at stake here, in light of the similarly substantial countervailing public interest, the balance does not characteristically tip in favor of non-disclosure.
"We do not hold that the requested information is not exempt under Exemption 7(C). We simply hold that a categorical rule is inappropriate here," the 31-page opinion states.
For example, identifying information of third parties in the investigation files will be exempt. But the district court must decide if the exempt information may be segregated or redacted from disclosable documents.