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Berkeley attorney, SC House candidate pulls lawsuit over school district's public records

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Berkeley County School District (copy)

A Berkeley judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by resident Tom Fernandez after he claimed district officials violated public record laws. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

A lawsuit filed against the Berkeley County School District over alleged violations of South Carolina's public records law has been dismissed, according to court records filed Wednesday. 

S.C. House candidate and Berkeley attorney Tom Fernandez has effectively withdrawn a lawsuit he filed last month against the school district.

Fernandez filed the suit after he was asked to pay more than $6,800 to get copies of various documents, invoices and emails exchanged on the district’s server.

He first submitted a public records request to the school district a year ago and filed the lawsuit in mid-May. 

Fernandez's legal counsel petitioned a judge Wednesday to allow the suit to be dismissed with prejudice, meaning it can't be brought up again in court. 

"The District takes its responsibilities under FOIA seriously, and is pleased that the lawsuit has now been dismissed with prejudice," district spokeswoman Katie Tanner said in a statement. "The District plans to move forward with its Motion for Sanctions for the filing of the lawsuit."  

Reached by The Post and Courier, Fernandez deferred to his attorney, Desa Ballard. 

"It is disheartening as a senior member of the bar to see lawyers behave like this," Ballard said. 

She declined to say why Fernandez petitioned the judge for the lawsuit to be dismissed, citing attorney-client privilege, but said that the withholding of public documents is reflective of a much larger issue.

"By requesting such huge deposits and projecting such huge fees ... it has to have the effect of scaring people off, and that's totally inconsistent with the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act," she said. 

Fernandez has submitted a new public records request to the school district, Ballard said, this time seeking copies of all the FOIA requests the district has received and their responses issued over a certain time frame "to try and determine if there is a pattern of the school district trying to scare people off when requesting public documents." 

Fernandez faced Republican incumbent Rep. Sylleste Davis for the House District 100 seat during Tuesday's election. With 49.72 percent of the vote, Fernandez barely trailed Davis in the polls, triggering a recount expected to take place Friday. 

Part of Fernandez's campaign focused on targeting what he called political corruption and fighting for increased government transparency. The timing of his lawsuit against the district caused some to question its ties to the election. 

"Clearly, Mr. Fernandez filed it in a desperate attempt for political gain," said Berkeley County Councilman Tommy Newell, adding that "the real losers here are the taxpayers, children and teachers of the School District because they were forced to spend funds fighting Mr. Fernandez’s bogus lawsuit.”

Ballard denied the allegations.

"I had no idea Tom was running for office of any kind," she said, adding the timing of the lawsuit "had absolutely nothing to do with any election." 

According to court documents filed Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge Roger Young is still considering the school district's request that Fernandez and his attorney be sanctioned.

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

Jenna Schiferl was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. She has worked as an education reporter for The Post and Courier since 2019.

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