Legislators Exempt from Freedom of Info Act

Public records law should apply to legislators

Legislators Exempt from Freedom of Info ActGov. Nikki Haley criticized state lawmakers Thursday for delaying passage of a bill that would require them to comply with South Carolina’s public records law.

“What is it that they are afraid to share?” asked Haley during a conference call with journalists.

Last month, Haley lauded 11 members of the South Carolina House of Representatives, including Rep. Don Bowen of Anderson, for working to eliminate an exemption that legislators now have from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Hours later, the proposal hit a roadblock when the GOP-controlled House sent it back to a committee for further review. Bowen, a fourth-term Republican, was one of five lawmakers that Haley had singled out for praise who voted to return the measure to the House Judiciary Committee.

Bowen said Thursday that he believes that the state’s public records law should apply to legislators.

“I don’t do anything that I would be afraid for anyone to see,” he said.

Three other members of Anderson County’s legislative delegation — Sen. Kevin Bryant and House members Mike Gambrell and Josh Putnam — said they would be willing to follow the public records law, provided that they don’t have to reveal sensitive personal information received from constituents.

The release of such information is already prohibited under state law, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association. But Rogers said his group would not object to putting specific language in the House bill to address this concern.

Rogers said he welcomed Haley’s support for removing the legislative exemption in the public records law.

“She is backing it and that’s great,” he said.

Haley said that the Freedom of Information Act overhaul is just one aspect of ethics reform that the General Assembly should approve during the second half of this year’s legislative session, which begins next week.

“It is something that I think the public wants and something I want,” Haley said.

An ethics review panel appointed by the Republican governor issued 23 recommendations in January dealing with issues such as campaign disclosure, conflicts of interest and the process for handling complaints against lawmakers.

“We haven’t seen the legislature move too much on this,” Haley said.

Citing the lack of ethics reform in South Carolina during the past 20 years, Haley said the issue “causes a legislator to look in the mirror.”

“We have some legislators who may be walking a fine line,” she added.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is investigating allegations that House Speaker Bobby Harrell used his office for financial gain, improperly spent campaign funds and unlawfully appointed his brother to a judicial screening panel. The Charleston Republican denies any wrongdoing.

State Supreme Court justices also heard arguments last month in a suit involving allegations of ethics violations that Anderson native and GOP fundraiser John Rainey has made against Haley. A circuit court judge previously dismissed Rainey’s suit and the House Ethics Committee cleared Haley.

In outlining her other legislative priorities, Haley called on lawmakers to approve a restructuring bill that would abolish the state Budget and Control Board. She also supports giving voters an opportunity to decide whether future governors should have authority to appoint the state superintendent of education, which is currently an elected position.

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