The state's highest court will hear arguments next week about whether the Friends of the Hunley should have to pay almost $140,000 in legal fees because it initially refused to comply with the state's open record laws.

Greenville businessman Ned Sloan first sued the nonprofit group a decade ago, seeking documents under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

As the case dragged on, the Friends of the Hunley -- which has received public money to care for the Confederate submarine raised off Charleston in 2000 -- eventually decided not to contest the lawsuit.

The S.C. Supreme Court threw out the original case after the Friends agreed it was subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Sloan and his attorneys then sought $138,529.51 to cover their legal expenses, and Circuit Court Judge Joseph Strickland ordered the nonprofit to pay.

At 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether it should reverse Strickland's ruling.

Kellen Correia, the Friends' executive director, said the group never denied a legitimate request for information from the public or from the news media, "and Friends is not violating the Freedom of Information Act."

"As the Supreme Court has ruled, the question of whether or not FOI laws applied to us is moot because we were not violating those laws," she added. "We should not be required to pay legal fees to those who misuse FOI laws as a method of constant harassment."

Strickland's opinion said Sloan "was required to expend considerably more time and effort on the case because the defendants transformed a simple FOIA request and the applicability of FOIA into complex and drawn out litigation."

The Friends of the Hunley had $1.16 million in revenues in 2009, according to its tax return. Correia said the ongoing legal fees are mostly covered by the group's insurance.

Sloan, a retired construction company president turned government watchdog, recently founded the S.C. Public Interest Foundation. On his office wall in Greenville, he has displayed at least 14 checks from state and local governments reimbursing him for legal fees incurred in lawsuits.

The H.L. Hunley sank in February 1864 after successfully ramming a charge into the Union blockade ship Housatonic and becoming the first submarine in history to sink a ship. The sub is being conserved in a Clemson Restoration Institute lab in North Charleston, while the Friends of the Hunley helps oversee the work.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.