South Carolina attorney general: Public records have limits
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina’s top prosecutor says he supports the public’s right to know what its government is doing, but he draws the line when releasing information might jeopardize a criminal investigation.
Attorney General Alan Wilson defended his office’s decision not to release a report on the investigation into former Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth, who pleaded guilty in August to a misdemeanor for using an inmate to do work at his home. Booth paid a $900 fine
In almost any other criminal investigation, the State Law Enforcement Division report that was the backbone of the case would be available to the public. But because the State Grand Jury handled the indictment against Booth, Wilson’s office concluded that, under state law, any testimony or evidence put before it must remain secret if not released in court.
“While you didn’t get the actual report, you got the meat of it in the form of the plea and what was put on the record,” Wilson said.
But that wasn’t necessarily the case with Booth. The only publicly released information was an indictment that barely extended to a second page, a one-page sentencing sheet and a presentation by Solicitor Strom Thurmond Jr. lasting less than six minutes.
That left plenty of questions unanswered for the taxpayers that once paid Booth’s salary, including how much the former sheriff might have impeded the investigation and the extent to which he misused inmates in the past.
Wilson said that is a necessary gap in the public records law. The State Grand Jury was established by law in 1989 and given broad powers to investigate gangs, drug rings, public corruption and other hard-to-crack crimes. The evidence it considers and the names of witnesses are kept secret because of possible retaliation and the danger that someone innocent may have their name smeared, Wilson said.
SLED agents might not include in their report people testifying against a drug dealer if they feared those witnesses could be killed or their families harmed, Wilson said.
“The integrity of an investigation is in the public’s best interest. The public knowing what’s going on is also in the public’s best interest. So you’re balancing competing interests here. Anything that compromises an investigation from the public safety point of view, I have to be against it as the chief prosecutor in the state,” Wilson said.
South Carolina is seeing a disturbing increase in hiding information during criminal investigations that under the law should be released to the public, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.
The SLED report also was a public document from the moment it was created, especially because it would have been released in any other circumstance, Rogers said.
“The importance of the open record law is to see if everyone is treated equally,” Rogers said. “Is a regular citizen going to get the same kind of deal as a sheriff?”
Wilson said his firm stance on not releasing information in the Booth case doesn’t mean he is against the Freedom of Information Act. He points out his office supported a Charleston radio host who sued the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, saying the organization should have to release records under the law.
“We are extremely open and want to be open with the public,” Wilson said. “We will put our money where our mouth is in that regard.”
Wilson is also weathering an open records challenge of his own from a freelance journalist in Newberry County who has been covering the office’s handling of the estate of the late soul singer James Brown. That journalist has sued the prosecutor over his refusal to release documents that she says the public has the right to view, including details of a negotiation to settle Brown’s estate.
Wilson said his main legislative priority next year also shows he wants to protect the public. The attorney general wants to create a public integrity unit that would allow his office to work in concert with SLED, the Department of Revenue, the Ethics Commission and the Inspector General to investigate public corruption cases. Currently, South Carolina law puts up roadblocks to keep those agencies from sharing information and simultaneously working on the same case.