COLUMBIA - As the S.C. State Ethics Commission formulates a new policy aimed at how it should deal with the media, the commission's chairman on Wednesday temporarily restricted the panel's communications with reporters.
A prominent media attorney called the move unlawful.
Commission Chairman James Burns said that until an official policy is adopted - a proposal is expected to be considered in September - only Executive Director Herb Hayden may speak with the media. The commission, appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley, oversees campaign finances and can levy penalties for a range of ethics matters for the governor and other state and local officials.
Generally, deputy counsel Cathy Hazelwood has answered media questions, and has often been forthright with the media on legal issues regarding the state Ethics Act.
Media attorney Jay Bender said Burns' move to change the policy without a motion, discussion or vote was against the state's open records laws.
"That's a change in policy," Bender said. "Without a motion and a vote, that would be illegal."
He added: "If we had more people in government like Cathy Hazelwood, we'd have a better government."
Bill Rogers, the executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, said other state agencies have used the implementation of a media policy to muzzle staffers and slow the release of information. Other media policies appoint "a central person who spins and controls the process," Rogers said.
Burns and Hayden said in an interview after the meeting that the new policy was not aimed at Hazelwood. Burns said that he wants the new commission members and staff to have a media policy in place to ensure the body is fair to all involved. "We don't want to give the impression that Cathy as the prosecutor is predisposed on any particular action on any particular case," Hayden said. "You don't want the prosecutor making a statement what they're going to do one way or another."
Hazelwood declined to comment.
Burns said nothing specific he had seen in media reports prompted the review. Burns also said that he consulted with Hayden before announcing the temporary change in media policy that all requests for comment be directed to Hayden. Hayden generally sets policy for the organization and helped do so in this case, Burns said.
"That's what Jay Bender is not focusing on," Burns said.
He stressed that the implementation of a media policy does not mean the agency plans to restrict access to the agency. "I'm a very strong advocate for being open, being transparent," Burns said.
Burns has asked Hayden to report on how other state agencies handle media requests, a policy that is expected to be discussed at the commission's September meeting.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.