Watchdog group sues Richland County over penny tax records request

A nonprofit government watchdog group is suing Richland County over documents related to the county’s transportation penny sales tax program, saying the county has violated the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

In a complaint filed Monday on behalf of the Greenville-based S.C. Public Interest Foundation, attorney Jim Carpenter says the county has failed to respond in a timely manner and furnish records that were requested in February.

“We’re asking for copies of public records, and we have a statutory right to receive them,” Carpenter told The State. “We could request these out of idle curiosity, and we’d have a right to see them.”

The complaint names Richland County and County Council Chairman Torrey Rush as defendants and asks the court to enforce the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

In December, the state Department of Revenue alleged it had uncovered possible corruption, fraud and waste in an investigation of the county’s penny tax program. Since then, the county has received floods of requests for public records related to the penny tax, county officials have said.

South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies, such as the county, to respond to requests for public records within 15 working days of receiving the request. The records do not necessarily have to be furnished within that 15-day window.

On Feb. 11, Carpenter submitted a FOIA request on behalf of the S.C. Public Interest Foundation listing 34 items related to penny tax program. The letter was addressed to Rush.

The bulk of the request concerns the county ordinance and process used to hire the program development team of M.B. Kahn Construction Co., ICA Engineering and Brownstone Construction Group, which manages the $1.2 billion program.

Other items requested include:

▪ The referendum question ballot presented to voters in 2012, when the penny tax was narrowly approved.

▪ All contracts entered into by Richland County paid in whole or in part by penny tax revenues.

▪ All records of payments greater than $10,000 paid from penny tax revenues.

▪ All reports of audits of expenditures related to the penny sales tax and audits of any outside agencies receiving penny tax funds.

Having received no response after 18 working days, Carpenter emailed another copy of his request on March 8 to Richland County attorney Larry Smith, he said.

On March 10, 20 working days after the original request was sent to Rush, the Richland County ombudsman’s office responded to Carpenter, acknowledging receipt of the request and saying that all non-exempt documents would be forwarded after review by the county’s legal department.

Just over two weeks later, on March 28, the ombudsman’s office responded again, requesting specification and clarification for half the items listed in Carpenter’s request.

“I requested 34 different kinds of public records. They had questions about 17,” Carpenter said. “But the 17 they don’t have questions about, they didn’t give us any answers on. They thumbed their nose at the FOIA law.”

Recently, the S.C. Public Interest Foundation brought a lawsuit against Richland County and the city of Columbia over property tax breaks offered to private student housing developers.

The foundation was started in 2005 by state activist Ned Sloan. Carpenter has filed over 100 public interest lawsuits since 1997 on behalf of Sloan and his foundation, he said.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.