State

S.C.’s top legislators cite exemption from public records law

South Carolina’s top legislators declined to provide emails and schedules requested by The Associated Press, citing the public records exemption the General Assembly carved for itself in state law.

Gov. Nikki Haley, who has no such exemption, released a detailed public schedule and provided access to more than 450 emails, though they show she conducts no business through government email subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Several hundred constituent emails to Haley contained a wide array of requests, complaints and commendations. But there was no correspondence with elected officials, Cabinet directors or other political players. There was also no substantive exchange with staff, as the vast majority of inter-office emails contained news clippings and weather reports.

Asked how Haley communicates, spokeswoman Chaney Adams said the office’s legislative affairs team is in “constant contact” with legislators.

And “the governor frequently meets with elected officials, agency heads, legislators, business leaders and others in person and talks to them by phone,” she said.

The request to South Carolina lawmakers for a week’s worth of documents in February was part of an AP open-government project in all 50 states, which found more denials than approvals. Legislators sent letters in South Carolina included Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, House Speaker Jay Lucas, and the chambers’ majority and minority leaders.

Responses from House and Senate attorneys noted South Carolina law exempts the “memoranda, correspondence, and working papers” of legislators and their staffs.

Essentially, legislators can – but are not required – to release anything. Efforts to strengthen the state’s public records law over the past several years have been repeatedly stymied over the proposed removal of that exemption.

“I know how it looks, but it’s not a matter of hiding anything,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who has tried unsuccessfully to broker a compromise.

Part-time legislators don’t have the staff to sort through emails and redact constituents’ personal information. Besides, the Legislature’s email system automatically deletes emails after six months, he said.

“We just don’t have anybody compiling that information and saving it,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia. Legislators shouldn’t be exempt from the law, he said, but “to try to bring us in the light is more difficult” because of the way the system was set up decades ago.

Martin said legislators’ biggest concern is maintaining confidentiality with constituents.

“In many instances, emails are very personal,” he said. “It would likely have a chilling effect if folks are aware that information could be made public.”

But Rutherford noted other elected leaders who get personal requests aren’t exempt.

“I don’t think we’re any different than county or city council,” he said.

Many of the type of requests Martin gave as examples were indeed in emails Haley provided, such as those seeking help with food stamps, job applications, and child support.

Dozens of emails complained about South Carolina’s crumbling roads and called for an end to the political gridlock. A few opposed raising the gas tax to fix them.

Emails the Republican governor personally responded to included those seeking support for gun-friendly measures. Noting she too holds a concealed weapon permit, Haley wrote, “I fully support your right to protect yourself and your family in a safe and responsible way.”

Several emails gave Haley recommendations on who she should – or shouldn’t – endorse to be the GOP presidential nominee, days before she backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. One complimentary writer said he was a Democrat from Texas, “but I would vote for you for president.”

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