SC Ethics Commission chairman limits who can talk to media

Posted by JAMIE SELF on July 16, 2014 

— The chairman of the State Ethics Commission said Wednesday that all comments made on behalf of that agency to the media must come from its executive director – a move a press attorney said breaks the law.

The new policy, announced by chairman James Burns at the Ethics Commission’s meeting Wednesday, changes the way the agency deals with the media – stopping the Ethics Commission’s general counsel and deputy director who, until now, has been the agency’s key spokesman from talking to the media.

“The point is not to squash openness at all or to not be transparent,” said Columbia attorney Burns, before sharing details of the new policy.

Burns, appointed to the commission by Gov. Nikki Haley, said he would not open the matter up for discussion by the commission.

The Ethics Commission is made up of nine members, appointed by the governor, and is charged with enforcing state ethics laws for most state and local office holders, excluding judges and state legislators. It also oversees reporting of campaign fund-raising by candidates and activity by lobbyists at the State House.

As a newly appointed commissioner, Burns said he wanted to know the agency’s policy on releasing public information. He also wants the Ethics Commission to consider approving a new policy, which he has asked executive director Herb Hayden to propose at the agency’s September meeting.

How the new policy was enacted violates the state’s Freedom of Information Act, according to Jay Bender, a media attorney who sometimes represents The State. Among other things, that act regulates how public bodies make decisions.

“If you’ve got to establish a policy, you have a motion, a discussion and a vote,” Bender said. “What we had was an announcement by the chairman of what the policy was going to be.”

S.C. Press Association executive director Bill Rogers said media policies “politicize” the release of information by sending requests “through a central person who spins and slows down the release.”

In an interview after the meeting, Burns, who previously served as chief counsel to Haley’s ethics reform commission, and Hayden said they did not break the law. As director, Hayden said he frequently sets policy and does not need the Ethics Commission’s approval to do so.

In the past, Cathy Hazelwood, the agency’s deputy director and general counsel, frequently has answered questions about the state’s ethics laws.

In August, for instance, news reports detailed publicly how Hazelwood asked Haley to reimburse the state for the cost of a state security detail that went on a N.C. trip also attended by Haley campaign staffers. Later, however, Hayden said Haley did not have to reimburse the state for the security detail because the trip was not campaign related.

Burns and Hayden said the new policy was not an effort to stop Hazelwood, who declined to comment, from speaking to the media.

“We don’t want to give the impression that Cathy as the prosecutor is already predisposed to any particular action on any particular case,” Hayden said. “(Y)ou don’t want the prosecutor making a statement that could imply that they’re going to (make a decision) one way or the other. Her role is to evaluate the evidence presented during an investigation.”

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