Judge delays Sanford's request to force agency to share information

FILE. Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford
FILE. Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford

COLUMBIA -- A long-standing dispute Gov. Mark Sanford is having with a state agency that pays claims to injured workers is flaring up again.

In the latest turn in the dispute with the S.C. Workers Compensation Commission, a federal judge has put on hold Sanford's efforts to get information about commission awards and attorneys' fees.

U.S. Judge G. Ross Anderson has ordered parties in that case to file written explanations by Jan. 15 as to why the commission should not release the information.

"Personal-injury lawyers are trying to set up procedural roadblock after procedural roadblock in an attempt to keep this information secret," Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said. "This information is readily available under the Freedom of Information Act."

David Pearlman, a Charleston attorney for injured workers seeking to deny Sanford's requests, declined comment Friday except to say he expected the matter will be aired in court, possibly later this month.

The governor has consented to the delay, even though the commission agreed to provide the information, Sawyer said.

Although the information Sanford seeks is available under the FOIA, the governor sought it through an executive order, according to records in the case.

Critics say such an order to a judicial branch of state government is an overstepping of gubernatorial authority.

The dispute, in some ways, is far removed from the original controversy.

In 2007, Sanford tried to order Workers' Compensation commissioners to impose new medical standards for evaluating injured workers' claims.

The governor said the standards would save taxpayers money.

Critics said they would mean less money in awards for workers injured on the job. Commission members who judge claims need to look at many factors, they say.

Business leaders cheered Sanford, saying new rules would save companies $72 million a year.

After legal battles that went to the state Supreme Court, Sanford dropped his effort for new standards. But he still seeks worker award and attorney fee data to see how much money is spent.

This follows last week's dispute with the S.C. Employment Security Commission in which Sanford also tried to get information to show if the agency -- which handles jobless claims -- is wasteful.

Critics say that data would cost millions of dollars to gather because it's not readily available.

The jobless agency rebuffed Sanford's request, causing him to threaten not to apply for $146 million in federal loans to pay the 77,000 S.C. residents eligible for jobless benefits.

Faced with a federal deadline and bipartisan criticism about playing the Grinch during the holidays, he applied for the funds.

Sanford soon will ask the Employment Security Commission for specific data.

"If they fail to provide the information requested within the time we set, we will begin the process of removing them (the three commissioners) from office," Sawyer said.

An effort to remove the commissioners could land the governor in court -- which is where he has been with the Workers' Compensation Commission.