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Judge: S. Carolina House Republicans can keep records secret

March 5, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A state judge ruled that the financial records of the group that represents Republicans in the South Carolina House are not public records.

Several media outlets sued the South Carolina House Republican Caucus for the records after the caucus turned them over to State Law Enforcement Division agents during an investigation into Statehouse corruption.

The outlets said the records should be public because the caucus used for free an office and meeting space in the public Blatt Building on Statehouse grounds. Judges have ruled in the past that groups that take public money must comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

But Circuit Judge Robert Hood ruled the free office isn’t the same as getting public money, so the House Republican Caucus is not a public body, according to The State newspaper .

Hood also ruled the media organizations are corporations and only citizens can file a lawsuit over the Freedom of Information Act. The Associated Press, The State newspaper, the Post and Courier of Charleston and The Greenville News joined the South Carolina Press Association and the South Carolina Broadcasters Association in the lawsuit.

“I’m disappointed in the outcome,” said Jay Bender who represented the news outlets. “I’m even more disappointed that an organization that has had so many members convicted for criminal activity relating to it would not want to make itself open to the public to restore confidence, or enhance confidence, in members of the General Assembly. Of course, it might be secrecy serves their purposes.”

Four former Republicans in the House have been convicted as part of the Statehouse corruption investigation. The news outlets sought House Republican Caucus records of payments to a political consulting firm central to the Statehouse investigation.

Bender plans to appeal at least part of Hood’s ruling.

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill thanked the court for “its thorough ruling.”

“The order confirms that the caucus complied with South Carolina law,” the Rock Hill Republican said in a text message to The State. “We hope the well-reasoned order ... ends the debate on this issue.”

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