State

Sunshine Week: How The State’s reporters use FOI in quest for public information

South Carolinians didn’t always have access to routine public information.

Before the state’s first Freedom of Information Act was adopted in 1974, it was common for public agencies to keep all kinds of information under wraps – from school budgets to officials’ salaries to crime reports.

“The political culture was such that secrecy was the norm,” said longtime media lawyer Jay Bender.

Since 1974, the law has been amended numerous times, for matters like making clear that public officials’ salaries are public, as are police crime reports.

Still, South Carolina is not as open as it could be.

There is no law that requires top local and state agency officials to use state email accounts that could be subject to Freedom of Information requests. And some officials still stonewall legitimate requests for public information, forcing time-consuming and expensive lawsuits.

Today’s FOI is used by citizens, reporters and even public officials.

Over the years, reporters for The State have used FOI numerous times to pry loose all kinds of information, from videos of police traffic stops to financial details of state agency budgets to how much pollution the state’s coal-fired power plants are releasing.

In recognition of the 10th year of Sunshine Week – a national initiative promoting the importance of open government – here are some examples of how journalists at The State have used the FOI law in recent years. The resulting stories, previously published, can be found at thestate.com/localnews.

Compensation for lawmakers

Reporter: Jamie Self

What we sought: Legislative salary and expense payments from S.C. House and Senate clerks

The value: Data showed that lawmakers’ $10,400 annual salaries are inflated through thousands of dollars they automatically receive to cover expenses without having to prove how they spent the money.

The outcome: Lawmakers contend that they are compensated fairly for the work they do. But some said their compensation packages need to be re-evaluated so that they are paid through a more streamlined, transparent process.

Read the story: “Expenses quietly inflate lawmakers’ salaries”

Closer look at trooper, driver in shooting

Reporter: Clif LeBlanc

What we sought: Employment and police records about the white Highway Patrol trooper who shot an unarmed black motorist, and the motorist’s driving record.

The value: Readers learned more about the professional history of a trooper whose actions brought national attention to the hotly contested issue of white officers shooting young black men.

The outcome: Readers learned that trooper Sean Groubert had several complaints lodged against him by other drivers and that he had been disciplined internally by the patrol. That driver, Edward Levar Jones, had been convicted of marijuana possession during a prior traffic stop and that he had traffic violations in another Midlands town.

Read the story: “S.C. trooper has record of complaints; driver has driving, marijuana convictions”

Questions about election director

Reporters: Dawn Hinshaw, Clif LeBlanc

What we sought: A report on a 2008 SLED investigation into the Orangeburg County elections director, a man who was under consideration for the job of Richland County elections director in the wake of the 2012 election debacle.

The value: While SLED did not uncover anything criminal, the revelation undermined efforts by the Richland election office to regain public confidence, since local legislators in charge of the search – and accused of political patronage – did not seek basic information.

The outcome: The man, Howard Jackson, got the job. He was election director for eight months before being dismissed. The election board did not disclose the reason.

Read the story: “Issues surface with director finalists”

A small applicant pool indeed

Reporter: Sammy Fretwell

What we sought: Applications and resumes of candidates for the vacant Department of Health and Environmental Control director’s job.

The value: These records would show who applied and what their qualifications were.

The outcome: As we suspected, there were no applications or resumes for the position. When the agency responded that it had none, it confirmed to us that only one candidate – former state insurance chief Eleanor Kitzman – sought the post. Kitzman later withdrew her name for the post.

Read the story: “Kitzman controversy: No other applicants sought for top DHEC job”

The killings of five children

Reporter: Tim Flach

What we sought: Details about the killing of five Lexington County children last fall, one of the largest mass murders in the Midlands in recent memory. Authorities in charge of the investigation spanning three states initially refused to discuss the causes of death for the children, ages 1-8, though some said it appeared they were strangled. The effort to get information was further restricted by court-imposed limits on comments and some records as well as a recent S.C. Supreme Court ruling that keeps autopsy records secret. But after careful study of the gag order, it was clear it did not apply to all records.

The value: Using the FOI, The State was able to obtain records that shed more light on how the children died, a case of intense public interest on local, state and national levels.

The outcome: The records showed:

• Search warrants saying Timothy Ray Jones Jr., accused in the killings of his children, bought items “consistent with destruction and disposal of human remains,” and revealing notes about disposal and mutilation of bodies. Those warrants also noted that five belts were among material found at the home in Red Bank where the killings allegedly happened.



• A full copy of a search warrant initially released with a section blacked out by authorities. New material discovered showed Jones told investigators he believed his children planned to kill him.



• Grand jury indictments saying Jones strangled four children and beat the other to death.



Read the story: “Lexington County sheriff: Jones bought items for disposal of children’s bodies”

The real prize?

Reporter: Clif LeBlanc

What we sought: All emails between S.C. State board member Jonathan Pinson and Florida businessman Richard Zahn.

The value: Pinson was under investigation by the FBI for public corruption, but readers did not know that one of the schemes Pinson and Zahn were working on involved Columbia’s oldest public housing complex.

The outcome: Readers first learned that Zahn had his eye on the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Gonzales Gardens. Pinson and Zahn held meetings in Columbia and Florida with city officials, including Columbia’s mayor and two City Council members, to line up support for Zahn’s proposal. Months later, readers also would learn at Pinson’s trial that he and Zahn’s ultimate scheme was to leverage profits from a property sale to S.C. State University into seed money for demolishing and rebuilding Gonzales Gardens.

Read the story: “EXCLUSIVE: Accused schemers courted Columbia City Council members”

Children at risk

Reporter: Jamie Self

What we sought: Caseloads data for Social Services child-welfare case workers and internal county Social Services audits

The value: Documents showed that 40 percent of child-welfare caseworkers shouldered work loads higher than what national experts and the agency itself recommended. Audits showed that in 25 of 46 counties, investigations of alleged child abuse were more likely than not to be closed in violation of the agency’s own policies.

The outcome:The details helped bolster critics claims that Social Services was letting children fall through the cracks. The agency, at the time, was under pending investigations by the state Senate and the Legislative Audit Council.

Read the story: “40% of SC child-welfare workers bear heavy caseloads”

Verifying a deputy’s accident report

Reporter: Harrison Cahill

What we sought: A dash cam, surveillance video and the 10-year driving record for Richland County sheriff’s deputy Cpl. Ken Proffitt, who ran a red light at Two Notch and Trenholm roads July 25 and crashed into another car.Proffitt’s patrol vehicle flipped several times after striking Miles’ vehicle. We sought both the dash cam, surveillance video obtained by a nearby gas station and the ten-year driving record for Proffitt. Prottitt contended his blue lights and siren were on before the accident.

The value: To find out what happened during the accident, which occurred at a heavily traveled intersection.

The outcome: Surveillance video of a nearby gas station from the S.C. Department of Public Safety showed Proffitt without blue lights and sirens running the red light – contradicting parts of his version of events. Proffitt’s vehicle clearly can be seen flipping after hitting the other car in the intersection. His 10-year driving revealed Proffitt had been at fault in three accidents while on duty. Proffitt was subsequently fired.

Read the story: “Video shows deputy who caused crash, flipped over his own car”

Parking vs. development

Reporter: Clif LeBlanc

What we sought: All communications during negotiations between city officials and Core Campus, a Chicago-based company that was converting a Main Street high-rise and public parking garage into housing and parking for more than 800 college students.

The value:Columbia’s taxpayers did not know what resulted from the negotiations over the garage built with public money.

The outcome: The city all but gave away hundreds of parking space to lure business downtown in hopes of triggering more development and making the city center more attractive to young people. The per-space price was the lowest the city had accepted, the parking director wrote in an email to the city manager.

Read the story: “Downtown Columbia deals with parking crunch” (written with reporter Roddie Burris)

Polluting the skies

Reporters: Sammy Fretwell, John Monk

What we sought: Information from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, sought in 2008, on how many millions of tons of toxic and greenhouse gases the state's major coal-fired power plants spewed into state skies each year.

The value: The State's three-page report on major coal-fired power plant operator Santee Cooper's yearly pollution was the first-ever detailed look by any newspaper about major atmosphere polluters in our state.

The outcome: At the time, Santee Cooper was trying to build a giant new coal-fired power plant in Florence County that likely would have been among the state’s largest air polluters. Santee Cooper executives also were denying that solar power had any future in South Carolina. Opposition fueled by the State's report to Santee Cooper's plans ultimately resulted in the killing of the proposed coal plant. Today, solar power is a small but growing part of the state's energy mix.

Read the story: “How DHEC’s oversight fell short”

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