USC illegally delays release of records on property, pay, say FOI advocates

Harris Pastides. File photo.
Harris Pastides. File photo.

The University of South Carolina has violated state law by not turning over public records requested by The State in a timely manner, according to S.C. law and open-government advocates.

The State submitted a public records request on March 23 seeking a list of addresses, sale prices and current uses for all properties that USC, its foundations and other affiliated entities own. For records that are less than two years old, state agencies have 10 business days to say whether they intend to grant the request and 30 calendar days after that to fulfill the request, according to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. For records that are older than that, agencies have 20 business days to respond to the request and 35 calendar days after that to fulfill the request, according to the law.

As of Wednesday, it has been 109 business days since the initial request, and 137 calendar days since the 10-day response deadline. USC has not provided the records.

“This is fairly unusual... It’s not a common issue to go months past the deadline,” said Bill Rogers, the executive director of the S.C. Press Association, of which The State is a member. “I think anything over 30 days is foot-dragging.”

The State is seeking the records to help show the impact the university has on the Columbia area.

This is just one of four records requests USC has failed to produce by the legally required deadline. They include:

  • A May 15 request for the amount of money USC’s foundation spends supplementing faculty salaries has been pending for 99 calendar days. When The State placed an identical request with Clemson University on the same day, Clemson provided it within the legally allowed time frame.
  • A May 16 request for the personnel file of a professor accused of sexually harassing a former student has been pending for 98 calendar days.
  • A May 31 request for summaries of two USC Police Department internal affairs reports of confirmed instances of discrimination or harassment has been pending for 83 calendar days.
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In two prior instances this year, USC complied with The State’s public records request, but the university did not meet the deadline established under state law.

A March 26 request for receipts of athletic spending was released on July 2, 54 calendar days past the statutory deadline. A March 30 request for the personnel file of an instructor accused by a student of making a racist comment was released on July 2, 50 calendar days past the statutory deadline.

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“We make every effort to reply to (Freedom of Information Act) requests within the mandated response time,” USC spokesman Wes Hickman wrote in an emailed statement. “However, we do not have a staff dedicated solely to compiling those responses, most of which take significant time to research.”

Read USC’s full statement here.

“Furthermore, you are not the only one making requests. Although, you certainly have accumulated the most of any individual in your short time at The State,” Hickman said. “We receive hundreds of requests from media, research firms and members of the general public each year.”

A high volume of records requests is not a legally admissible reason to not comply with public records law, Rogers said. Brian Tolley, executive editor of The State, agreed.

“The amount of records we have requested from USC is reasonable,” Tolley said. “They involve issues that are important for students and for all South Carolinians. We have been much more patient with the university than the law requires. It’s past time for the school to comply.”

On July 31, during a meeting with journalists at The State, USC President Harris Pastides promised to rectify the situation. However, on August 6 — 92 calendar days after the statutory deadline to provide the records — Hickman emailed The State saying USC possessed only some of the records. Property records for USC’s foundations and the alumni association would have to be submitted as separate requests, beginning the process all over again.

The State contested the timeliness of Hickman’s response, but resubmitted the records requests anyway. A USC foundations official confirmed both the foundation and the alumni association received the request, but as of Wednesday — 11 business days since the additional requests were submitted — the required determination has not been provided.

On August 13, a reporter from The State again asked Pastides at a public meeting regarding the records and he said he would “take care of it.”

The State has received no response since.