What do a crackdown on beer festivals and officials' spending habits have in common?
Public records helped uncover both of them.
The Post and Courier routinely uses the S.C. Freedom of Information Act to unearth crucial documentation for the benefit of all sorts of South Carolinians. The law is a principal method for holding the powerful accountable and shining a light on happenings that would otherwise remain in darkness.
The practice has recently exposed corruption, profligate spending, government dysfunction and a broad information-gathering practice by police. But the FOIA also promotes transparency in more than just government, politics and the criminal justice system. Anyone in the Palmetto State — not just the news media — can use it to unveil happenings in business, sports and the food world.
"The FOIA is for everyone," said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association. "It can be a parent wanting to know what's going on with their local school board. It could be someone wanting to know what a state agency is doing. ... It covers a variety of issues."
For instance, the newspaper's food editor, Hanna Raskin, cited the FOIA in seeking out details about that state crackdown on beer festivals. Sports columnist Gene Sapakoff used it to pull back the curtain on concussions among college football players in South Carolina.
Today starts Sunshine Week, when those triumphs of public information are celebrated and the push for further openness is reinvigorated. Lawmakers have proposed some strengthening of the law, including plans to create an office to judge FOIA disputes and to make clear that certain records are public.
"It's being used effectively," Rogers said. "But our hope that we can get more reform."
In past year, these are some of the issues that the law helped bring to light:
Massive police databases: Prompted by a confrontation in Charleston that led to a young man's suicide, reporter Andrew Knapp inquired through FOIA requests about a widespread police practice to gather personal information on people who encounter officers. Charleston police recorded more than 100,000 entries in its "field interview" database but refused to give key details unless The Post and Courier paid a quarter-million dollars. The newspaper refused and filed a lawsuit that's still pending. Undaunted, Knapp and reporter Glenn Smith embarked on a first-of-its-kind review by using public records and pushing officials to open up about methods for gathering the information. In the "Watched" series, they found that police nationwide are stockpiling massive databases with personal information from millions of Americans who simply crossed paths with officers. As a result, several departments looked into how innocent people could be removed from the databases.
MUSC spending scandal: Reporters Lauren Sausser and Doug Pardue used the FOIA to find expense records from the 16-member board overseeing the Medical University of South Carolina. Their digging exposed lavish spending habits in which members treated themselves to $560,000 worth of food, drink and lodging — from $160 bottles of a fabled Italian wine to a $37,000 Christmas banquet. In the wake of the newspaper’s report, the state inspector general launched an investigation and the board announced an internal review. The governor's appointee to the panel also agreed to repay $20,000 he had been reimbursed for meals, wine and luxury hotel rooms.
Lawmaker living at contributor’s luxury property: An open-records request into state lawmakers’ contributions and spending revealed that one legislator had been living at a key contributor’s half-million-dollar rental home. What’s more, the contributor was a nursing home industry official renting to a lawmaker who led a House subcommittee overseeing nursing homes. After reporter David Slade’s story ran, the contributor was forced to pay $24,000 in back taxes because he had claimed to be living in the home to qualify for a lower tax rate.
Walter Scott shooting: In October, a state judge moved to close a hearing and seal future motions prior to the murder trial of the North Charleston police officer who shot Scott. Knapp was the lone reporter in the courtroom to stand and challenge the order, objecting that it violated open-government law. His reporting on the judge’s action and the intervention of the newspaper’s lawyer caused the judge to reverse his order, maintaining public access to the hearings and motions. Knapp also used the FOIA to reveal that the state’s insurance fund has been paying more in recent years to settle civil rights claims against North Charleston police. At the same time, another FOIA request unearthed evidence that the police had dramatically reduced traffic stops for minor violations in the year after the shooting, backpedaling on a tactic that had drawn scorn from civil rights leaders.
MUSC cheating scandal: Sausser and reporter Tony Bartelme used the FOIA to push for answers about a cheating scandal at MUSC in which two students with ties to high-ranking public officials escaped punishment recommended by a school honors council. When the school tried to charge them $275,000 for access to emails, the reporters let readers know about it. They also alerted the public when a school attorney tried to shut down their investigation by warning a reporter against contacting university officials or students. Their efforts galvanized students to mount a petition demanding that their school leaders give a full accounting of the scandal.
College drug ring exposed: Bartelme and Pardue exposed a major drug network involving College of Charleston students accused of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine, pills and other narcotics into the local party scene. A key to their article was 100 pages of police investigative reports tied to the ring’s dealing and a homicide involving one of its members.
Death behind bars: Reporter Knapp dug deep after learning that a 50-year-old woman had died from alleged neglect while jailed in Charleston County on an old shoplifting charge. Knapp used the FOIA to gain access to more than 200 pages of documents and 25 hours of jailhouse video that depicted the woman's final hours as vomiting drained her body’s water supply to fatal levels.
Editorials demand action: Throughout the year, The Post and Courier’s editorial board pushed for state officials to expand provisions of the FOIA and share more information with the public. The newspaper’s editorial pages also took officials to task when governments tried to muzzle free speech, withhold details about key job hirings and withhold police body camera footage from the public.
Teacher's inappropriate relationship: Parents called reporter Smith early last year after officials at the Charleston County School of the Arts refused to answer questions about a teacher accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student. School officials remained silent even after the teacher was escorted off campus. Smith submitted FOIA requests and battled the school district through four months of stonewalling before he got access to the teacher’s personnel file. Those records revealed that questions about the teacher had surfaced before, but the administration failed to take action — even after seeing a photo of the teacher and his student walking hand-in-hand at the beach.