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Editorial: If Commerce doesn’t come clean on incentives, it’s time to change FOI law

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hitt interview volvo opening.jpg (copy)

Bobby Hitt — speaking to journalists last year at Swedish carmaker Volvo's Ridgeville manufacturing facility — oversees the S.C. Department of Commerce, which has always had a penchant for withholding information about its economic incentives. Wade Spees/Staff

We always knew the S.C. Commerce Department was secretive about the economic incentives it doles out to lure companies to our state, but we didn’t realize how much so until last week, when a state senator went to court to challenge that secrecy.

Freshman Sen. Dick Harpootlian filed suit after the agency provided heavily redacted documents in response to his Freedom of Information requests regarding the incentives it gave to a tire recycler that went belly up and a tire manufacturer that’s in legal disputes over unpaid bills. Among the items blacked out about incentive packages for Singapore-based Giti Tire were:

• The name of the Giti contact person.

• The names of Giti officials who submitted applications for the incentives, and even of the person who witnessed the signature.

• The names of the lawyers representing Giti.

• The amount of money Giti was receiving from the federal government.

• The value of job-development tax credits the state was providing.

• The wages Giti told the state it would pay employees, which can and certainly should factor into what sort of incentives the state grants.

In one string of intra-office emails, Commerce even blacked out the name of a Giti official who had acknowledged that tire production wasn’t ramping up as expected. Perhaps the agency wanted to protect that person from difficult questions from superiors, but that’s not something South Carolina’s public records law allows.

What the law does allow — and very specifically does not require — is withholding documents that contain trade secrets, particularly sensitive personal information and details of contracts and incentive packages that are still being negotiated.

Frankly, we don’t really care who Giti’s contact person was, or what lawyers represented it, or who witnessed a signature. But the fact that the Commerce Department would even believe that it has the legal authority to withhold that information — much less that it would want to withhold it — raises deeply disturbing questions about the agency’s priorities.

As Sen. Harpootlian told The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox: “What we see is their unwillingness to tell the taxpayers how much they spent, what they spent it for and did we get our money’s worth.”

We aren’t convinced that any of those names and details are exempt from disclosure, and we hope a judge will be able to familiarize the agency with what can and can’t be withheld from the public — not just when it comes to Giti but in all of its deals. But if any of those exemptions are in fact allowed, then the law needs to be changed. There is simply no justification for hiding any of this information from the public, which pays the salaries of Commerce officials and underwrites the incentives the agency gives out.

Yes, the agency needs to protect actual trade secrets. Yes, it needs to keep quiet during negotiators to bring companies to our state instead of other states. And yes, incentives can be powerful economic development tools. But we need to be able to see whether our government is making smart deals on our behalf. And the only way we can tell is if we are able to review the information officials used to determine when and whether to provide incentives to companies — and not just the information the agency wants us to see.

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