Every year, South Carolina taxpayers pay handsomely to support the College of Charleston's fund-raising efforts. George Watt is paid $199,000 as executive director of the College of Charleston Foundation and executive vice president for institutional advancement for the College. He is supplied an office and meeting space.
But the taxpayers can't find out about how he's doing at their expense. When asked this week about individual donations to the foundation, he balked. He said he would not release information about how much individual donors contribute.
"We've never released donor information," Mr. Watt told Post and Courier reporter Diane Knich. "I'll fight you on that."
As a public employee, Mr. Watt should be particularly sensitive to the public's right to know. And as head of the Foundation, he should recognize that it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Indeed, you'd think anyone connected with college foundations across the state would know all about their responsibilities for public disclosure. In a landmark case in 1991, Weston v. Carolina Research and Development Foundation, the S.C. Supreme Court established that university foundations are public bodies and subject to open records laws.
South Carolina Press Association lawyer Jay Bender considers it one of the most important decisions regarding freedom of information in the state. Since the opinion, he said he has not been aware of state foundations trying to avoid public scrutiny.
According to Mr. Bender, Mr. Watt is required to make public the names of donors and the amounts they gave unless the donor specified that it must remain anonymous as a condition of giving it.
The issue has become of particular interest to the public since Bill Asbill resigned from the Foundation Board, saying that the process used by the College of Charleston Board of Trustees to hire Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as the next president was mishandled.
(A 15-member search committee spent $100,000 to produce a list of the five best candidates. Only one of the names was among the Board of Trustees' final three. Mr. McConnell was not that one.)
Mr. Asbill is not the only foundation board member or donor to raise questions about the process. But he appears to be the only one pledging to withhold his donations - though he declined to say how much he has contributed.
Meanwhile, the College of Charleston is moving slowly on another FOI request by The Post and Courier to see emails and letters between College trustees and Sharon Kingman, who chairs the Foundation Board.
College lawyer Kathryn Bender says she has asked for those emails but not yet received them, and she says she cannot commit to a time frame.
Why not? The law is clear. A public body must respond to such a request within 15 business days. The Post and Courier's request was submitted on March 3. Ms. Bender's response is hardly satisfactory.
Providing public information to the public shouldn't be debatable. It's the law, and the reason it's the law is because a representative democracy cannot function in secrecy.
Openness is always the right course for public officials to take.
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