A South Carolina judge has denied a request by The State Newspaper and other S.C. media organizations to make public the financial records of S.C. House Republicans.
Fifth Circuit Court Judge Robert Hood ruled the legislative caucus — made up of 79 Republicans, almost two-thirds of the 124-member House — is not a “public body” subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The State and other S.C. media sued for caucus records handed over to State Law Enforcement Division investigators related to a State House public corruption probe.
The media group argued the caucus’ records and meetings — now closed — should be open to the public, since it gets the use of office and meeting space, paid for by taxpayers, for free. The caucus utilizes an office in the Blatt Building on the State House grounds, worth about $5,000 a year.
“I’m disappointed in the outcome,” Jay Bender, an attorney for The State and other news outlets said. “I’m even more disappointed that an organization that has had so many members convicted for criminal activity relating to it would not want to make itself open to the public to restore confidence, or enhance confidence, in members of the General Assembly. Of course, it might be secrecy serves their purposes.”
The public corruption probe has ensnared six former state lawmakers, including five former S.C. House GOP members — four who have been convicted, and one who awaits trial.
Bender said the House GOP caucus records should be public, pointing to a 1991 S.C. Supreme Court decision that said once-secret records of a University of South Carolina foundation were public because it received millions of dollars in public funds.
Judge Hood, however, said the 1991 decision does not apply because the caucus received only a small non-monetary subsidy from taxpayers for use of office and meeting space.
The caucus’ operating funds, other than those coming from annual membership dues, are raised through private donations. And the caucus does not receive, spend or manage public dollars, Hood wrote in his decision filed Friday.
Hood continued: The “indirect financial benefit received by legislative caucuses through the use of office space and equipment in the Blatt Building does not transform (the caucus) into a public body.”
Hood also said the state’s open-records law says only citizens can file a Freedom of Information lawsuit, and that the media organizations seeking to open caucus records are corporations, not people.
Bender said he plans to appeal Hood’s decision, asking the judge to limit his order to the question of whether media organizations have standing to sue for the records. Should Hood agree, that would allow an appeals court judge to “make an important ruling on whether a South Carolina corporation can be a South Carolina citizen authorized to sue under the Freedom of Information Act,” Bender said.
“One circuit court has ruled, ‘yes,’ but there’s been no appellate decision on that question,” he said.
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.
“It’s all part of improving transparency in state government, and this is a blow to that effort,” Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said.
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, thanked the court for “its thorough ruling.”
“The order confirms that the caucus complied with South Carolina law,” Simrill responded in a text message to The State. “We hope the well-reasoned order ... ends the debate on this issue.”