Politics & Government

SC Commerce chief put on the hot seat in court fight over economic development deals

South Carolina Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt was on the hot seat for nearly an hour Wednesday as state Sen. Dick Harpootlian grilled him in court about his agency’s refusal to provide records and data on its economic development projects.

Harpootlian’s 54-minute barrage of questions was replete with tense exchanges in which the Columbia Democrat, an attorney bringing his own lawsuit, and Hitt, on the Richland County Courthouse witness stand, sparred over the efficacy of attracting private businesses with public money and whether the public deserves to see details of those deals after they are finalized.

It ended with Harpootlian describing Hitt as “arrogant” and calling on Gov. Henry McMaster to order his appointee to be more transparent with the public.

“Bobby Hitt is a good salesman, a good PR guy,” Harpootlian told a gaggle of reporters after the hearing. “But do you trust him to balance the books? The answer is ‘no.’”

Wednesday’s hearing was the first to stem from a lawsuit Harpootlian brought against the Commerce Department for withholding and redacting documents from his Freedom of Information Act request into two Commerce deals. It was a rare and theatrical battle of wits between two highly respected figures in S.C. politics, whose paths already crossed once this year when Harpootlian tried to sink Commerce’s deal with the Carolina Panthers.

Circuit Judge Robert Hood did not make a ruling Wednesday, other than when he required Hitt to testify after the Commerce Department moved to quash Harpootlian’s subpoena. The case will move forward.

Harpootlian originally requested records related to incentives for Singapore-based Giti Tire’s new plant in Chester County and for Viva Recycling’s former facility in Moncks Corner. He picked those two because Giti Tire has reportedly had issues paying its contractors, while Viva Recycling ran into a host of environmental and financial problems.

Over a two-hour hearing, Harpootlian and his law partner, Chris Kenney, questioned Hitt and a witness they brought — former Commerce chief economist Rebecca Gunnlaugsson — to pinpoint documents that Commerce had withheld from Harpootlian.

That included status reports from the Giti project, detailed breakdowns of the project’s costs and the underlying data that Commerce used to perform its cost-benefit analysis of the deal.

That kind of information is crucial for the public to determine if those projects have paid off for South Carolinians, Harpootlian’s legal team asserted.

Hitt argued the projects do pay off.

During one testy exchange, Harpootlian questioned Hitt’s memory after the Commerce chief said he couldn’t recollect certain aspects of the Giti deal. Hitt replied, “I remember some details.”

“I remember Chester County had a 20% unemployment rate. Now it’s below five,” Hitt said. “I know that this company employs 700 people in that county. I know that in that county, when I came in, more than 50% of the people in the county got in a car to drive out of the county to work because there were no jobs in the county. I know that putting new businesses in Chester County is good, and I know tire companies are very good because we have five of them and they do very well around the state.”

Hitt explained that some information, including detailed project cost breakdowns, is considered proprietary by private companies. Those companies wouldn’t come to South Carolina if the state routinely gave out information that could benefit their competitors, Hitt said.

Hitt also erroneously claimed that Harpootlian is the first person to complain about Commerce’s handling of public records. Commerce has historically shielded financial details of economic development deals from the public.

Earlier this year, Commerce’s cost-benefit analysis of the Panthers’ deal remained secret until Harpootlian pressed for it to be released to lawmakers.

Pressed by Harpootlian, Hitt conceded that others have complained, but that Harpootlian is the first to take legal action against the agency.

“Generally, when they have a complaint, they call us, and generally we work through the complaint,” Hitt said.

“That’s not what I’ve heard, but that’s another matter,” Harpootlian said.

Harpootlian’s line of questioning painted Commerce as an agency that withholds documents by default.

Hitt also said he had no role in deciding which documents to withhold or redact from Harpootlian’s FOIA requests. Such decisions are usually made by Commerce’s legal team with input from the company involved, he said.

Harpootlian also complained that Commerce did not give him a privilege log — a list of the documents it withheld and the legal reasons why. Commerce’s lawyer, Tracey Green, said he would work on providing one.

Harpootlian said he has no plans to drop the lawsuit, even if Commerce provides more records. The whole point of the lawsuit, he told reporters afterward, is to get a ruling from a judge that Commerce should always release these kinds of records.

“We’re litigating this so no one else has to litigate it,” he said.

In response to Harpootlian’s call for the governor to sit down with Hitt, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor has already met with Hitt and been assured “that Commerce has been as forthcoming as possible without releasing any company’s proprietary information.”

“If Senator Harpootlian disagrees, then the court is the appropriate place to hash it out,” Symmes wrote in a statement.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.