The troubling information uncovered during the Statehouse corruption probe exposed a rogue political system, sparked overdue calls for ethics reform and gave South Carolinians even more reasons not to trust their government. It is critical that citizens are certain nothing important is buried in House Republican caucus records related to the probe.
Unfortunately, the caucus does not feel the same way about transparency.
A circuit judge is expected to rule any day now on a lawsuit brought by The Post and Courier and other media organizations seeking access to those caucus financial records.
An extensive investigation by First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe uncovered examples of misused campaign funds, misconduct in office and other misdeeds tied to the politically influential Quinn family who acted as Republican kingmakers for years. As such, the GOP caucus records are of substantial public interest.
Despite the need to repair the trust issue between citizens and the lawmakers who represent them, the caucus continues to cling to those records. The basis of the caucus’ argument is that it is exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act because the House passed a rule in 2007 exempting its caucuses from that law.
It’s an astonishing position: We don’t have to comply with a state law because of a self-serving exemption we carved out for ourselves. It is not too difficult to see where that lack of transparency could be a problem.
The lawsuit makes the commonsense argument that the S.C. Republican Caucus is supported by public funds and therefore is a “public body,” making it subject to public records through the Freedom of Information Act.
The caucus enjoys the free use of taxpayer-funded office and meeting space on the Statehouse grounds. It is a spurious argument indeed that a group of elected lawmakers meeting in such a setting is not a public body.
A Statehouse probe report refers to payments from some caucus members to people who were wrapped up in the corruption probe. Public interest demands that the caucus make those records available instead of stonewalling requests for them.
Four lawmakers pleaded guilty as a result of the probe and one other was convicted. A sixth is still awaiting trial.
The GOP Caucus makes up nearly two-thirds of the S.C. House membership and constitutes a quorum of the House. A recent story in The (Columbia) State newspaper on a court hearing in the case notes that its members also “collect money from groups that lobby the Legislature and spend money on political campaigns.”
That is a lot of business conducted out of the public eye.
While the caucus contends it is a private group, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster issued an opinion when he was the attorney general in 2006 that says the group should be subject to the FOIA. His opinion is supported by government transparency organizations.
The caucus clearly will not do the right thing and release its financial records related to the Statehouse probe. The judge in the case should put to rest the notion that the group is not a public body so there can be no questions about what is in those documents. Such a ruling would be a major step toward citizens’ ability to hold their government accountable.