Politics & Government

SC House GOP Caucus refuses to release records it gave corruption investigators

The South Carolina House of Representatives.
The South Carolina House of Representatives. tglantz@thestate.com

The S.C. House Republican Caucus has refused to make public the financial records it turned over to investigators as part of the ongoing S.C. State House corruption probe.

The State newspaper submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to S.C. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, last month requesting to review the GOP Caucus’ financial records that caucus leaders said in September they had handed over to investigators with the State Law Enforcement Agency.

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

GOP Caucus attorney Mark Moore responded to the request in a letter Friday.

Citing the entire S.C. Freedom of Information act, Moore said that he had carefully reviewed The State’s requests “and the applicable law” and concluded that 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.

Asked to clarify the justification for withholding the records, Moore declined to comment further.

‘All about public business’

State Grand Jury proceedings are secret, but witnesses can publicly disclose testimony if they so choose.

The House GOP Caucus often meets in private and discusses bills that are before the Legislature. The Republican Caucus has long contended it is a private organization.

However, in 2006, then-S.C. Attorney Gen. Henry McMaster – who now is the governor – disagreed.

In a 2006 opinion, McMaster said the Republican Caucus is subject to the Freedom of Information Act because “it is supported in whole or in part by public funds and is expending public funds.”

Open government advocates agree the Republican Caucus is a public body and should produce the records.

Longtime government watchdog John Crangle said legislative caucuses consist of public officials and use public space.

The House GOP Caucus meets in the state-owned-and-operated Blatt building on the S.C. State House complex, where House members’ offices are located.

The GOP Caucus makes up nearly two-thirds of the S.C. House membership and constitutes a quorum of the House.

Caucus members are elected representatives who decide what legislation to push or oppose, Crangle said.

“What they’re doing is all about public business,” Crangle said.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, also said the GOP Caucus is a public body because it is supported in whole or in part by public funds.

House Republicans “constitute a majority of the Legislature,” Rogers added.

The State newspaper is a member of the S.C. Press Association.

‘Nothing to hide’

In September, the S.C. Republican Caucus said it had given investigators its financial records dating to 1995.

The executive committee in September sent a letter to House Republicans saying the committee had no reason to believe that the Caucus violated any portion of the state’s ethics law “nor that these records will indicate that any member of the Caucus is in violation of the Ethics Act.

“In short, the Caucus has nothing to hide from law enforcement,” the committee wrote.

Since then, two S.C. legislators have been indicted in the S.C. public corruption probe led by special prosecutor David Pascoe.

In December, S.C. House Rep. Jim Merrill, a former House majority leader, was indicted on 30 charges accusing the Berkeley Republican of misconduct in office as far back as 2002 as well as a series of 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 Quinn firm paid Courson $132,802 “through multiple transactions,” the indictment said.

The S.C. corruption probe also is eying the S.C. Ports Authority’s ties to Richard Quinn & Associates.

In addition, Richard Quinn’s son, state 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.

Timeline of indictments in S.C. Corruption Probe

Special prosecutor David Pascoe is leading an ongoing investigation into public corruption in the General Assembly.

Key Dates

2014

Sept. 10: Former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is indicted by a Pascoe-led grand jury on charges of using campaign money for personal expenses, filing false campaign disclosure reports and misconduct in office.

Oct. 23: Harrell pleads guilty to state charges of misusing campaign money and resigns, agreeing to a plea deal that requires him to tell federal and state authorities of any illegal activities by others, including lawmakers, that he knows of.

2016

Dec. 14: S.C. House Rep. Merrill is indicted on 30 charges of misconduct in office and ethics violations.

2017

March 17: State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, is indicted on three charges — two counts of misconduct in office and one of use of campaign funds for personal expenses.

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