A lawyer for a S.C. media group clashed Thursday with an attorney for the S.C. House Republican Caucus over whether that group can keep its financial records secret or must make them public under the state Freedom of Information Act.
State Circuit Court Judge Robert Hood said he would issue a decision by no later than Feb. 1.
The key question is whether the caucus — which has an office in the Blatt Building on the State House grounds — should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act since it gets the use of office and meeting space, paid for by taxpayers, for free. If the caucus comes under the Freedom of Information Act, both its records and meetings — now closed — would have to be open to the public.
The caucus is made up of 79 Republicans, almost two-thirds of the 124-member House. Its members hold private meetings, collect money from groups that lobby the Legislature and spend money on political campaigns.
No witnesses testified in Thursday’s non-jury trial.
However, for nearly 90 minutes, attorney Jay Bender, representing the media group including The State that sued for caucus records, and caucus attorney Jennifer Hollingsworth argued over how various court decisions, the Freedom of Information Act, state laws and House rules apply to the case.
Arguing the caucus’ secret spending is a matter of public interest, Bender gave Judge Hood a copy of the 2018 State Grand Jury report on public corruption in the S.C. General Assembly. Bender referred the judge to a section of the report saying caucus leaders contribute more than is allowed by law to favored legislative candidates.
Over Hollingsworth’s objections, Hood accepted the report but said it would not play a role in his decision about whether caucus records are public.
Bender also argued a 1991 S.C. Supreme Court decision, opening up once-secret records of a University of South Carolina foundation, means caucus records, too, should be public. He said the office and meeting space that the caucus uses for free was worth about $5,000 a year.
But Hollingsworth said the 1991 decision doesn’t apply because it involved millions of dollars of public money going to the foundation from USC. The caucus only gets a small non-monetary subsidy from taxpayers, Hollingsworth said.
Hollingsworth also argued Hood should dismiss the suit. The state’s open-records law says only citizens can file an Freedom of Information lawsuit, and the media seeking to open caucus records are corporations, not people, she said.
However, Bender argued corporations are people under the law. The suit was brought by The State Media Co., The Post and Courier Inc., the Associated Press, the S.C. Press Association, the S.C. Broadcasters Association and Gannett GP Media, which owns the Greenville News.