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The State newspaper sues House GOP for records in corruption probe

tglantz@thestate.com

The State newspaper, with other media organizations, is suing the S.C. House Republican Caucus for financial records turned over to investigators as part of an ongoing State House corruption probe.

That probe has led to indictments against three Republican legislators – including two House GOP Caucus members.

The lawsuit, which argues the caucus is subject to the state’s open records law, comes after The State newspaper first reported the S.C. House Republican Caucus refused to make its records public.

The State Media Co., The Post and Courier Inc., Gannett GP Media, which own The Greenville News, the S.C. Press Association, the S.C. Broadcasters Association and The Associated Press are suing the caucus.

“The goal is to establish that this caucus is subject to the Freedom of Information Act and, as such, its records would be open and its meetings would be open,” said Jay Bender, the attorney representing the media outlets in the suit.

The S.C. House Republican Caucus makes up nearly two-thirds of the S.C. House membership and constitutes a quorum of the House, yet it holds its meetings in secret. The GOP Caucus members are elected representatives who decide what legislation to push or oppose. Caucus members also meet in the state-owned-and-operated Blatt building on the State House complex, which makes it a public body, the lawsuit alleges.

The State newspaper submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to S.C. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, in March requesting to review the GOP Caucus’ financial records. Caucus leaders said in September they gave the records to investigators with the State Law Enforcement Division.

GOP Caucus attorney Mark Moore denied the request in early April.

Moore said he had carefully reviewed The State’s requests “and the applicable law” and concluded the “requests are not appropriately directed to the (S.C. House Republican Caucus).”

“Therefore, we must respectfully decline to produce the records referenced in your requests,” Moore wrote.

The lawsuit says the GOP Caucus is supported in whole or in part by public funds and is “therefore a ‘public body’ under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.”

The lawsuit also notes that representatives of the plaintiffs – reporters – have consistently sought to attend GOP Caucus meetings but have been denied entry in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.

Majority Leader Simrill would not comment on the lawsuit Thursday. Instead, he referred The State to the caucus’ letter refusing access to the records.

The governor and open government advocates also say the Republican Caucus is a public body and should produce the records.

McMaster recently said the caucus records should be made public, echoing his findings in a 2006 opinion he wrote as attorney general.

The State House corruption investigation, led by special prosecutor David Pascoe, has led to three Republican lawmakers being indicted on public corruption charges.

Former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, pleaded guilty in 2014 to spending campaign money for private use. In December, now-suspended state Rep. Jim Merrill was indicted on 30 charges accusing the Berkeley Republican, a former House majority leader, of misconduct in office and other ethics violations. Merrill is accused of illegally using his office to pocket at least $1.3 million, either directly or through his business, Geechie Communications.

Last month, state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, was indicted by the state grand jury on two counts of misconduct in office and one count of using campaign money for personal expenses. Courson is accused of paying Richard Quinn & Associates $247,829 from 2006 to 2012. Then, the Columbia political firm paid Courson $132,802 “through multiple transactions,” the indictment said.

Richard Quinn’s son, Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, is a former S.C. House majority leader. Both Quinns are named in a once-secret eight-page section of a SLED report involving potential public corruption in the S.C. General Assembly.

State reporters and editors were able to review a copy of that redacted section and made the names public.

Bender said the GOP Caucus should “want to make its records and meetings public to demonstrate that its affairs are honestly conducted, but that is not the case with this group.”

“I suspect some members are saying, ‘We have nothing to hide,’ but others for whatever reason insist on an illegal cloak of secrecy,” Bender said.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Suing the House GOP

The State newspaper and other media outlets are suing the S.C. House Republican Caucus to open its meetings to the public and to release records it turned over to public corruption investigators. Why the lawsuit matters:

▪ The House GOP Caucus meets in the state-owned-and-operated Blatt building on the State House complex, which makes it a public body, the lawsuit alleges.

▪ The GOP Caucus makes up nearly two-thirds of the S.C. House membership and constitutes a quorum of the House, yet it holds its meetings in secret. The lawsuit alleges that is a violation of the state’s open records law.

▪ Caucus members are elected representatives who decide what legislation to push or oppose. And three Republican lawmakers, including two House members, have been indicted on ethics charges. One pleaded guilty and cases against the other two are pending.

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