The Buzz

July 19, 2014

The Buzz: The return of secret government?

Government openness? The public can point to several recent developments showing S.C. government, which earned an “F” in a Center of Public Integrity corruption-risk study, is growing more opaque, not less.

The Buzz

A blog from The State's political team of Cassie Cope, Jamie Self and Andy Shain. Email tips to thebuzz@thestate.com.

The aim of a new policy allowing only the S.C. State Ethics Commission’s director – and not its attorney – to talk to reporters “is not to squash openness at all or to not be transparent,” that agency’s chairman James Burns tried to assure reporters Wednesday.

But reporters – and the public – can point to several recent developments showing S.C. government, which earned an “F” in a Center of Public Integrity corruption-risk study, is growing more opaque, not less.

On Wednesday, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled autopsy reports are medical records and can, therefore, be kept secret. The ruling came after The (Sumter) Item sued a coroner to release an autopsy report of a man shot and killed by police.

Police said the man fired at officers first. The autopsy report, which the newspaper obtained from another source, contradicted that, finding no gun-shot residue on the man’s hand and that he was shot in the back.

The state’s high court also ruled recently that public bodies can change their agendas at the last-minute without notifying the public. It also said no agenda is necessary for regularly scheduled meetings.

That’s a problem for the public, said Bill Rogers, S.C. Press Association executive director. “You won’t know what your councils or school boards will be discussing, so you won’t be able to participate in the discussion. These rulings send us back to secret government.”

From now until September, when the Ethics Commission considers adopting its first-ever official media policy, all public statements must come from executive director Herb Hayden.

Government watchdogs questioned whether Hayden, a law enforcement officer, and not the Ethics Commission’s attorney, Cathy Hazelwood, is the best person to interpret the law.

“The law is pretty straightforward,” Hayden said, touting his 26 years working for the commission, including 15 as director. Hayden said he will consider allowing Hazelwood and others to speak to the media as part of the policy that he’s developing.

Still, government watchdogs are suspicious when access ends.

“They’re not exactly working toward openness,” said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, a limited-government think-tank that is pushing for reforms to the state’s ethics laws.

“Politicians and bureaucrats would prefer that anything and everything they did were secret,” said John Crangle of Common Cause of South Carolina. “It’s like the Pentagon in Washington. If they could keep the fact that the Pentagon exists secret, they’d do it.

“The only problem is, you can see it from the highway and the airplane when you’re coming in.”

Activist gains seat on S.C. ed board

Abstinence activist and Common Core opponent Sheri Few failed in her campaign to become the state’s next superintendent of education, finishing third in June’s Republican primary. But one of her deputies just landed a spot on one of the state’s two education governing boards.

Deb Marks, vice president of operations and program director for S.C. Parents Involved in Education, was appointed to the S.C. Education Oversight Committee as the business representative of state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland.

Few launched Parents Involved in Education, which has received about $1 million in state money since 2008 to promote abstinence-until-marriage sex-education curriculum.

“I’m honored to have been appointed, and I look forward to the opportunity to review public policy and have a voice on that committee,” Marks, who studied physical and business education in college, told The Buzz Friday.

The Oversight Committee, among other things, approves changes in education standards with the state Board of Education – a point of interest for Marks. During a recent debate over the state’s science standards, Marks said she advocated for teaching evolution alongside creationism and intelligent design.

“Everything should be objective,” Marks told The Buzz. “Evolution has not been proven to be anything beyond a theory.”

‘Wanted to come back home’

Glenn McConnell was not the only fixture in state government lost when the Charleston Republican resigned in June as lieutenant governor to become the College of Charleston’s next president.

Paul Patrick, formerly the S.C. House budget and finance director, started Wednesday as the college’s vice president of administration and planning in business affairs, where he also will work on special projects for the president’s office. The position pays $130,000 annually, a 30 percent bump from Patrick’s state budget job.

Patrick jumped at a chance to move back to his and his wife’s hometown and their alma mater’s oak-strewn campus. “I always kind of wanted to come back home,” he said.

Sister love

Secretary of state Democratic hopeful Ginny Deerin of Sullivan’s Island is no newcomer to how politics works. She cut her teeth helping Charles “Pug” Ravenel’s campaign for governor and also assisted Charleston Mayor Joe Riley with his re-election campaign.

Hoping to pull off an upset of Republican incumbent Mark Hammond of Spartanburg in November, Deerin now is drawing on her political experience from 1974 at the University of South Carolina, when she was chapter president of the Delta Delta Delta sorority. Deerin said she already has won over some conservative Tri Delta sisters. “Sisterhood is definitely trumping politics.”

The Buzzies

Best reality re-do: Bravo’s “Southern Charm” reality TV star Thomas Ravenel is running for U.S. Senate again after losing a Senate bid in 2004, this time seeking the seat now held by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. But it was another re-do that caught The Buzz’s eye Monday. Ravenel carried his petition to run as an independent into the S.C. State Election Commission office twice. A TV crew was waiting for Ravenel in the office but their cameras did not get the shot when he made his entrance.

Best beard: Duck Commander boss Willie Robertson cut a $500 check to Gov. Nikki Haley during an Arkansas fundraiser, her campaign disclosed. It was not obvious on campaign reports that the “Duck Dynasty” star kicked in to the guv. The check came from DC Products LLC of West Monroe, La., the Robertson family’s duck-hunting store.

Staff writers Cassie Cope and Andrew Shain contributed. Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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