A ruling on whether the S.C. House’s Republican Caucus must release financial records tied to an ongoing State House corruption probe could be made soon.
The State and other media sued the caucus this year after S.C House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, declined to make public financial records that the caucus turned over to state law enforcement officers as part of that investigation.
That corruption investigation, headed by prosecutor David Pascoe, has led to multiple indictments of former GOP House leaders, including a former House speaker and two former House majority leaders.
Earlier this year, The State sought caucus records of payments to the Richard Quinn & Associates firm. Last week, GOP political consulting kingpin Richard Quinn Sr. was indicted on charges of paying Republican legislators more than $1.3 million to advance the causes of his corporate clients, including the embattled SCANA utility, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, Palmetto Health and the S.C. Ports Authority.
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Caucus attorney Jennifer Hollingsworth asked Cooper to dismiss the media’s lawsuit Wednesday, saying the House — overwhelmingly Republican — had adopted a rule exempting caucuses from the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. Hollingsworth argued the S.C. Constitution allows the House and state Senate make their own rules, including deciding what meetings and records will be made public.
“What our House has done is not unique,” Hollingsworth said. “These open meeting laws can be ... restricted in a way. ... The Legislature can apply their own rules, just as the judiciary does.”
Hollingsworth cited a nonbinding 2006 opinion — written by then-S.C. Attorney Gen. Henry McMaster, now governor — saying caucuses are subject to the state’s open-record law because they are “supported in whole or in part by public funds.” However, McMaster added, if the General Assembly desired, it could adopt legislation to exempt caucuses from FOIA.
Attorney Jay Bender, representing The State and others, argued House rules, making caucuses private, do not override state law. “Only a statute could amend the Freedom of Information Act, and only a statute could exempt the caucuses from the reach of the statute.”
After the hearing, Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said the lawsuit reflects a “long-standing” battle between the press and the caucuses.
“There’s public need to know what’s going on there,” Rogers said. “It’s an important issue that needs to be decided.”
S.C. corruption probe
Special prosecutor David Pascoe is leading an ongoing investigation into public corruption in the General Assembly
▪ Sept. 10: Former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is charged with using campaign money for personal expenses, filing false campaign disclosure reports and misconduct in office.
▪ Oct. 23: Harrell pleads guilty to misusing campaign money and resigns. He agrees to a plea deal requiring him to tell federal and state authorities of any illegal activities by others, including lawmakers, that he knows of.
▪ Dec. 14: State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, is indicted on 30 charges of misconduct in office and ethics violations.
▪ March 17: State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, is indicted on three charges — two counts of misconduct in office and a count of using of campaign money for personal expenses.
▪ May: State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, is indicted on two counts of misconduct in office.
▪ August: Merrill pleads guilty to one count of using his office for personal profit. He is sentenced to a year of probation.
▪ Oct. 18: Republican consultant Richard Quinn Sr. is indicted by the State Grand Jury on a felony charge of criminal conspiracy and illegal lobbying, for failing to register as a lobbyist. Also indicted are: former state Reps. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, and Tracy Edge, R-Horry. Quinn Jr. and Courson also are indicted on new charges.