I walked into a "sealed" courtroom in downtown Tucson Thursday afternoon and saw something interesting: six Justice Department staffers at one table, two plaintiffs' advocates at the other.
The case would perhaps be the trial of the year in Tucson if the courtroom weren't closed to the public. I got in for a couple of minutes because the judge hadn't arrived yet for the afternoon session.
Inside, Jay Dobyns, his attorney and a paralegal are pressing his case that his employer, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, breached his contract. Dobyns is well-known in Tucson - a local son who played wide receiver for the University of Arizona in the 1980s before becoming an ATF agent and, in the early 2000s, infiltrating the Hells Angels.
The way Dobyns claims the ATF breached his contract is what makes the case so interesting: He says that for years after the Hells Angels operation ended in 2003, the agency failed to protect him and his family from violent threats, then failed to adequately investigate an arson fire at his house on Tucson's east side in August 2008.
His own agency initially accused him of setting the fire, Dobyns says. The case eventually was transferred to the FBI: It remains theirs - and unresolved - today.
"There's no reason for us to be here," Dobyns told me Thursday at lunchtime. "My case is overwhelming."
Dobyns accuses the Justice Department, of which ATF is an agency, of trying to make an example of him, punishing someone who complained publicly about what he considered mistreatment by his agency.
"I called their baby ugly, and I did it in a national way: Fox, CNN, Newsweek, the Washington Post," Dobyns said.
The Justice Department made a counterclaim against Dobyns, accusing him of wrongly profiting from his position by publishing a book about his experiences in the Hells Angels investigation, "No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels." Dobyns knew the procedure for getting approval for writing such a book and selling movie rights, but he didn't follow it, the department says.
Court of Claims Judge Francis Allegra is hearing both complaints in the trial, which began this week in Tucson but ends next month in Washington, D.C.
Dobyns has gained legions of supporters from his book and his public criticisms in recent years of the ATF's Operation Fast and Furious. For me, one of the most persuasive parts of his case is that some of the same ATF managers he's accusing of malfeasance were also behind the notorious Fast and Furious gun-smuggling investigation.
Also, how is it possible the arson of his home remains unsolved? If Dobyns actually did it, the government needs to put him behind bars. If not, someone tried to kill a federal agent's family, which should have made it an urgent case to solve.
There is also a set of doubters who find Dobyns self-promoting.
I understand their perspective to an extent: In describing his situation Thursday, Dobyns told me U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder seems to have it in for him because of the way the Justice Department is fighting him. With all that Eric Holder is dealing with, it struck me as doubtful he cares about Dobyns.
But minutes after that conversation I walked into the courtroom and had to ask myself, what explains the six people at the Justice Department table? As I understand it, four were attorneys and two paralegals - a serious outlay of legal talent.
We the people, especially the people of Tucson, have interests at each table. At Dobyns' table, we have an interest in our federal law enforcement agents being protected from criminals and treated fairly by their employer. At the Justice Department table, we have an interest in making sure agents are doing their jobs and not winning damages - taxpayer money - over nothing.
That makes it especially unfortunate that the public is prohibited from attending the trial.
For almost three years, secrecy has marked the case, which Dobyns first filed in October 2008, two months after his home burned. In October 2010, Allegra issued a protective order sealing materials in the case related to how the ATF handles threats against agents, personnel matters potentially covered by the Privacy Act and materials related to ongoing or sensitive law-enforcement activities.
Since then, at least half of the filings in the case have been sealed. Still, the trial itself could have been open to the public: Allegra said during a May 22 hearing that if both sides agree, the trial could be open.
Surprisingly, it was Dobyns' side that nixed the idea. In a May 23 email to Justice Department attorney David Harrington, Dobyns' attorney, James Reed, said it would be too complicated to open the courtroom.
"I have talked with my client," Reed wrote, "and each witness we question has either obvious or potential testimony regarding confidential information as defined by the amended protective order."
Wednesday night, Reed told me, "Logistically, it's just unmanageable."
"When you are talking with witnesses, you don't know where a line of questioning is going to go," he said.
The judge would have to decide what testimony is protected, then clear the courtroom whenever it is, Reed said.
It's too bad, because besides the fascinating details of the case, there is a real public interest in knowing if, how and why the ATF abandoned this star agent. As it stands, it seems we'll be left with simply knowing Allegra's final decision when the trial ends.
Dobyns told me he plans to leave the case at that.
"I've pretty much lost faith in everything except this," he said, gesturing at the federal courthouse. "I'll live with what the judge says."
Contact columnist Tim Steller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter