If South Carolina law, as Attorney General Alan Wilson contends, doesn’t allow the public information about a Saluda County sheriff’s misconduct in office, something is wrong with the law.
But one of the state’s top legal authorities on freedom of information, says it is actually Mr. Wilson who is wrong. The information should be available to the public.
Mr. Wilson’s excuse for not revealing information about SLED’s investigation of former Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth is that the information was presented to the S.C. Grand Jury, which functions in private.
But Jay Bender, lawyer for the South Carolina Press Association, cites a S.C. Supreme Court decision that says material submitted to a grand jury is not secret forever. Once an indictment has occurred and the grand jury process is no longer in jeopardy, materials can be released to the defendant.
“If the defendant can get the material, the public can,” Mr. Bender tells us.
In light of this judgment the attorney general should reconsider his stance. The public has the right to know the details of the sheriff’s use of an inmate to do work at his home. He has already pleaded guilty and paid a $900 fine.
The indictment, a one-page sentencing sheet and a six-minute presentation by Solicitor Strom Thurmond Jr. were released.
But those do not provide enough information to determine if the grand jury handled the case well, if the solicitor did his job thoroughly and how extensive the sheriff’s misconduct was.
Why wouldn’t citizens be entitled to answer for themselves all three of those questions?
The attorney general has said that he is a strong advocate of public records laws. Now is a good time for him to demonstrate his commitment to freedom of information.
The public would like to see more stands like the one the attorney general took when he backed Rocky Disabato (Rocky D), a Charleston radio host who sued the S.C. Association of School Administrators, saying the organization should release records because it takes public money.
The attorney general of course must abide by South Carolina laws instructing when information is not to be made public. But those interpreting freedom of information laws should be viewing their task from the perspective of wanting to be as transparent as possible.
Mr. Wilson could show he is doing just that by recognizing that the law allows him to release information about the Saluda sheriff’s case, and by then acting accordingly.
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