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Lawsuit aims to end secrecy over ethics complaints in SC

September 11, 2021 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A lawsuit filed in federal court is asking a judge to overturn a requirement in South Carolina ethics laws that makes it illegal for anyone who files a complaint against a public official from talking about it unless the complaint is found valid.

The lawsuit is filed by a whistleblower who says a state lawmaker broke ethics laws by voting in favor of a special interest that paid the legislator $108,000 over three years through contracts with firms with ties to the lawmaker.

The State Ethics Commission rejected the complaint after discussing it behind closed doors, saying the lawmaker taking money from a subsidiary of the special interest didn’t affiliate him with the interest, the whistleblower’s lawyer said in a lawsuit obtained by The Post and Courier.

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In the lawsuit, attorney Chris Kenney called the finding a “legal absurdity.”

Kenney, who works in state Sen. Dick Harpootlian’s law firm, told the newspaper he can’t further identify the lawmaker or the special interest without a ruling in his favor from the court.

Ethics laws prevent people who file a complaint from talking about it publicly before the complaint is heard and also if the commission rules against it, even on a technical issue.

Critics of that provision have said it violates free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Meghan Walker said she wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, adding that lawmakers, and not her agency, write the state ethics laws.

Kenney wrote in his lawsuit that his client wants to push the Legislature to close the loophole, but can’t “without subjecting himself to criminal penalty” under South Carolina law.