The aim of a new policy allowing only the S.C. State Ethics Commission’s director – and not its attorney – to talk to reporters “is not to squash openness at all or to not be transparent,” that agency’s chairman James Burns tried to assure reporters Wednesday.
But reporters – and the public – can point to several recent developments showing S.C. government, which earned an “F” in a Center of Public Integrity corruption-risk study, is growing more opaque, not less.
On Wednesday, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled autopsy reports are medical records and can, therefore, be kept secret. The ruling came after The Sumter Item sued a coroner to release an autopsy report of a man shot and killed by police.
Police said the man fired at officers first. The autopsy report, which the newspaper obtained from another source, contradicted that, finding no gun-shot residue on the man’s hand and that he was shot in the back.
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The state’s high court also ruled recently that public bodies can change their agendas at the last-minute without notifying the public. It also said no agenda is necessary for regularly scheduled meetings.
That’s a problem for the public, said Bill Rogers, S.C. Press Association executive director. “You won’t know what your councils or school boards will be discussing, so you won’t be able to participate in the discussion. These rulings send us back to secret government.”
From now until September, when the Ethics Commission considers adopting its first-ever official media policy, all public statements must come from executive director Herb Hayden.
Government watchdogs questioned whether Hayden, a law enforcement officer, and not the Ethics Commission’s attorney, Cathy Hazelwood, is the best person to interpret the law.
“The law is pretty straightforward,” Hayden said, touting his 26 years working for the commission, including 15 as director. Hayden said he will consider allowing Hazelwood and others to speak to the media as part of the policy that he’s developing.
Still, government watchdogs are suspicious when access ends.
“They’re not exactly working toward openness,” said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, a limited-government think-tank that is pushing for reforms to the state’s ethics laws.
“Politicians and bureaucrats would prefer that anything and everything they did were secret,” said John Crangle of Common Cause of South Carolina. “It’s like the Pentagon in Washington. If they could keep the fact that the Pentagon exists secret, they’d do it.
“The only problem is, you can see it from the highway and the airplane when you’re coming in.”