COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley's administration is refusing to release correspondence related to an ongoing ethics inquiry, claiming attorney- client privilege extends not only to the governor but also the vast majority of her staff.
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association and an expert on the state's freedom of information law, said the move is an abuse of the law.
“It's another instance where we have a public body overreaching to try to hide records that are part of the public record,” he said.
Haley championed her commitment to transparency during her successful 2010 campaign for governor, and since then her office has frequently claimed her administration is the most open in recent memory.
Under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, The Post and Courier requested all records and correspondence from Haley's office related to the S.C. House Ethics Committee and its investigation of the governor.
In general, such public records are valuable because they frequently provide insight into the policy-making process, reveal abuses and uncover information that may never otherwise see the light of day.
The Ethics Committee is set to hold a public hearing later this month on allegations that Haley illegally lobbied and exploited her office while a House member from Lexington County.
Last week, Haley's chief legal counsel Swati Patel said in a written response to The Post and Courier that the majority of communications the newspaper requested are exempt from disclosure under a section of state law that protects the correspondence and work product of legal counsel.
All the governor's office offered to release were documents provided to the Ethics Committee that the committee already made public, and a Haley spokesman's interactions with the press.
The provision Patel cited in shielding the rest of the documents states that a public body can choose to withhold correspondence or work products of legal counsel and any other material that would violate attorney-client relationships.
Haley and her staffers are working with both Patel and private Columbia attorney Butch Bowers as they seek to have the allegations dismissed.
Patel, a state employee, is involved because the complaint “impacts the office of the governor on many issues, including separation of powers,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said.
The complaint strictly concerns Haley's time as a House member, but Godfrey said her staff also has attorney-client privilege.
He didn't explain how that right extends to a swath of staffers who are not mentioned in the allegations.
“The chief legal counsel represents the office of the governor, including the governor and staff, and legal advice she provides to the governor and staff is attorney-client protected communication — pretty simple — nothing more, nothing less,” he said in a statement.
Bender said attorney-client privilege likely only applies to Haley, and strictly in situations where she intended to have confidential discussions with her attorneys and didn't share the information with anybody else in her office.
He said the notion that the allegations represent a complaint against the office of the governor is absurd because the complaint addresses Haley's work in the House.
“They are acting like people who have something to hide,” Bender said.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.