November 24, 2014

SC House moves towards ending its exemption from open records law

State Rep. Bill Taylor has made passing the changes a priority for several years (Image: SCETV)

State Rep. Bill Taylor has made revamping FOIA law a priority for several years (Image: SCETV)

Legislators could soon be required to turn over any emails or letters they send involving state business — ending an exemption to South Carolina’s open records law that they’ve enjoyed for decades.

A House Ethics and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) study panel voted 19-1 Monday in favor of a proposal that would end legislators’ exemptions from open records laws. The vote was largely symbolic — the actual legislation would need to be introduced when the full General Assembly returns in January, but it signaled what House leaders will try to pass in 2015.

For four years, a bipartisan coalition of House members have tried to revamp the state’s FOIA laws to crack down on agencies that abuse or ignore the law by keeping documents secret with little consequence. The effort has been led by State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, a former journalist who said some agencies– especially small, local governments– purposely charge exorbitant fees to intimidate a person out of making the request.

“We’ve had so many subcommittee meetings over the years where we’ve heard the outrageous things that have happened with this,” he said during Monday’s meeting. “Charging $10,000 to a citizen to get some information they want? C’mon. And copying charges at $10 a page? All of that is just ludicrous.”

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Former Charleston County legislator indicted on eight charges

Former State Sen. Robert Ford before his resignation in May 2013 (File)

Former State Sen. Robert Ford before his resignation in May 2013 (File)

A Richland County grand jury has returned eight indictments against a longtime Charleston County state senator who stepped down last year.

Former State Sen. Robert Ford is accused of misusing thousands of dollars in campaign funds, then altering records when Senate staffers began investigating him, according to the indictments released by the State Attorney General’s Office on Friday.

Although Ford lives in North Charleston, the case was handled in South Carolina’s capital city due to campaign disclosure forms he filed with the State Ethics Commission.

The former Democratic senator is charged with Misconduct in Office, two counts of Use of Campaign Funds for Personal Expenses, two counts of Depositing Campaign Contributions into Personal Bank Accounts, two counts of False Reporting, and Forgery. He could face a maximum of 19 years in prison and $20,000 fine, plus possible reimbursement of the missing funds.

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Haley names ex-Navy attorney and Ethics Commission chair as new chief of staff

James Burns (Image: Nelson Mullins)

James Burns (Image: Nelson Mullins)

Gov. Nikki Haley has named a former Navy attorney and current South Carolina Ethics Commission chairman as her new chief of staff, according to an announcement from her office Thursday.

James Burns will replace Ted Pitts, who has taken a job with the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. Burns is currently an attorney with the prominent Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough law firm out of Columbia. Prior to that, he served as a deputy counsel in the Pentagon’s Vice Chief of Naval Operations office and a military attorney. He is a graduate of The Citadel military college in Charleston.

Burns also spent the past nine months as chairman of the state Ethics Commission after his February appointment by Haley. He received some brief attention this summer after announcing new guidelines for dealing with media interviews that reduced the number of staffers who could talk to reporters. While news organizations questioned the move as a political decision, Burns maintained it was about protecting the integrity of investigations since the agency’s attorneys would be involved in potential prosecutions for ethics violations.

The governor is currently in India, but released a statement Thursday calling Burns “a great addition.” “His integrity and outstanding reputation as a leader, combined with his understanding of both our policy and legislative goals, is exactly what we need to start this second term the same way we ended the first – fighting to make South Carolina a better place to live,” she stated. “The last four years have been great ones for our state, but we still have a lot to accomplish and I know that James is the best person to help us get the job done.”

Pitts has worked with Haley’s administration during her entire first term in office. He served first as a legislative liaison before being promoted to chief of staff last year. Prior to that, he served with Haley as a fellow Lexington County legislator in the South Carolina House. He is also a major in the South Carolina Army National Guard.

Legislators unsure right now what rural school funding reform would look like

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said  (File image)

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said he expects a solution would end up requiring more funding (File image)

The state Supreme Court has ordered lawmakers and school districts to revamp how rural schools are funded in South Carolina.

But those parties involved aren’t sure yet what change would look like or when it would happen.

The court ruled 3-2 Wednesday in favor of eight predominantly poor rural districts who had filed a lawsuit against the Governor’s Office and state legislators in 1993. Those districts were the last remaining entities out of 29 involved in the original lawsuit. The justices sided with the districts by finding South Carolina had not met the requirement to provide a “minimally adequate” education for students in their districts.

But the justices were specifically vague in potential solutions, beyond ordering both sides to come back before the court “within a reasonable time” after crafting a plan. The ruling did hint that the justices believed South Carolina was underfunding preschool and other early education programs.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, chairs the K-12 education finance subcommittee in the Senate. The longtime senator said he had been expecting a decision from the court at some point, but said the state’s leadership would need to reach a consensus on what to do next.

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Election review: Republicans pick up 1 seat, Democrats another in SC House

Richie Yow (Image: RichieYowforStatehouse.com)

Richie Yow (Image: RichieYowforStatehouse.com)

Republicans picked up a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives this week that they have never held before, but were not able to increase their advantage in the chamber after a Democratic candidate took disgraced ex-House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s old district.

Every incumbent in the Statehouse was reelected on Tuesday from both parties. The result was a disappointment for the Democratic Caucus, who had hoped to win up to five new seats this year.

That leaves the two parties in exactly the same situation they were before the election: 78 Republicans and 46 Democrats. There were no regular elections in the Senate this year, as senators hold four-year terms.

The biggest pickup for the House GOP came in Chesterfield County, where retired National Guard technician Richie Yow won the District 53 seat that had never before gone Republican. Yow defeated Democratic candidate Amy Brown with 59 percent of the vote to Brown’s 41 percent.

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