SC Ethics Commission to discuss talking to the media

jself@thestate.comJuly 15, 2014 

— The chairman of the S.C. State Ethics Commission wants to discuss how the agency shares information with the media.

Chairman James Burns, an attorney with the Columbia-based law firm Nelson Mullins, said he asked the Ethics Commission to discuss “media relations” at its Wednesday meeting.

“I don’t even know if there is a policy – what to do if commissioners are called by the media,” Burns said.

The Ethics Commission is a public body that must follow the state’s Freedom of Information Act, which requires open meetings and public access to its records.

But Burns said he is unaware of whether the agency has a policy for handling media requests, or ensuring that commissioners and staff are complying with the law, including, he added, protecting confidential information.

He also said reading about the Ethics Commission in the newspaper when he, the chairman, never received a call about an issue before the agency, made him request the discussion.

“When something is attributed to the Ethics Commission and I didn’t discuss it (with the reporter), is that attributable to me?” Burns asked rhetorically.

The Ethics Commission is charged with enforcing the state ethics laws for most state and local office holders, excluding judges and state legislators.

It also oversees reporting of campaign fund-raising and activity by lobbyists at the State House.

The Ethics Commission might not get to the media relations item, last on its public agenda, at its Wednesday meeting, Burns said.

But S.C. Press Association executive director Bill Rogers said he and media attorney Jay Bender, who sometimes represents The State, plan to attend the meeting to speak out against any attempts, if they are made, to limit access to public information at the Ethics Commission.

“To impose any kind of muzzle on comments is a terrible idea,” Rogers said. “It’s important that a public agency be as open as it can be and not throw up barriers, especially the Ethics Commission.”

Burns was appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican from Lexington, whose campaign reporting has come under scrutiny from the Ethics Commission.

He is one of nine commissioners, all appointed by the governor’s office for staggered, five-year terms.

Director Herb Hayden and Cathy Hazelwood, the commission’s general counsel and deputy director, usually speak on behalf of the Ethics Commission.

Efforts to reach Hayden on Tuesday were unsuccessful. Hazelwood declined to comment Tuesday.

In August, Hazelwood asked Haley to reimburse the state for the cost of a security detail that went on a trip attended by Haley’s campaign staff.

Hayden later said Haley did not have to reimburse the state for the security detail because the trip was not campaign related.

Burns said Tuesday the Ethics Commission’s flip-flopping on Haley’s campaign reimbursements is not driving his desire to discuss how commissioners and staff members share information with the media.

“Helping to educate the public about the ethics act is important, and Herb and Cathy do a good job,” he said.

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