School district: Attorney contract to determine public records isn’t … a public record

Horry County Schools says it won’t disclose the details of an agreement with third-party attorneys who could offer opinions on how the district should comply with multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.

Several FOIA requests sent by The Sun News for emails between school board attorneys, school board members and district staff remain unfilled, pending a legal opinions from the third-party attorneys.

On May 22, the school board voted to enter into a contract with legal firm Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge and Rice to render legal opinions on “construction contracts on the current building projects, procurement matters, as well as the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act,” according to meeting minutes.

But the amount of tax dollars spent on the work, as well as the exact nature of the work, is being withheld.

“This is an attorney-client privileged matter and is not subject to release,” said school district attorney Kenny Generette in a statement given in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Sun News.

South Carolina Press Association attorney Taylor Smith said that records held by a public body must be made available, although certain parts may be redacted.

“South Carolina law provides that the privilege attaches to communications made between (an) attorney and his or her client,” said Smith. “To the extent that these contracts have such communications, they may be redacted pursuant to South Carolina FOIA but do not have to be redacted pursuant to South Carolina FOIA.

“As a record held by that public body, they have a duty pursuant to a lawfully made FOIA request to turn over that record which is sought in their possession to the extent exempt information within that document can be lawfully redacted from it,” said Smith.

School board Chairman Joe DeFeo said he’d been told the contract was protected under attorney-client privilege.

“I hate to tell you this, but you’ve got to ask Kenny (Generette),” he said. “I’ve been told ‘This is attorney-client stuff, let the attorney handle it.’ Everything about this contract, you have to ask him.”

DeFeo said he didn’t know how much the third-party attorneys were being paid.

“I imagine when it’s all said and done the total billing would be FOIAable,” he said.

Smith said the amount of money the third-party attorneys are being paid is public.

“What is not attorney-client privilege is the price you’re paying for attorney services,” he said.

Christian Boschult: 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian