COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Republicans have defended their decision not to give reporters records involving a political consultant charged in a probe of possible Statehouse corruption in their state, arguing Wednesday that the courts have no purview over their internal decision-making.
The arguments came during a hearing over whether a judge should dismiss a lawsuit filed in April against the House Republican Caucus by a coalition of media outlets including The Associated Press. The coalition has been looking for items sought by special prosecutor David Pascoe in his ongoing probe into allegations of corruption in South Carolina’s Statehouse.
The items included records of the Caucus’ payments to the firms of Richard Quinn and his son, former House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, both of whom now face conspiracy charges. Quinn, a veteran Republican political consultant, is also charged with illegal lobbying. His son – who led the Caucus from 1999 through 2004 – faces a misconduct charge.
The millions of dollars the Quinns collected and spent on behalf of clients have become central to an investigation that began with the 2014 prosecution of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell. Both he and former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and were sentenced to probation. Three other current and former Republican lawmakers face charges in the case.
On Wednesday, Caucus lawyer Jennifer Hollingsworth argued that South Carolina’s constitution gives each legislative chamber the right to make up its own rules governing internal structure and procedure. Among those rules, she said, is a provision that allows the House to close its doors to the public when it wants to, such as during Caucus meetings — and concerning Caucus materials.
In support of that argument, Hollingsworth cited a situation in 2006, when then-Attorney General Henry McMaster wrote in a nonbinding opinion that open-records laws do apply to legislative political caucuses. But, Hollingsworth added, McMaster also said the Legislature has the authority to pass a law or chamber rule creating open records exemptions for its caucuses.
After that, Hollingsworth said, the House implemented the rule she said now shields it from the media outlets’ requests. The state’s public records law already exempts correspondence of individual legislators and their staffs, but not caucuses.
Jay Bender, attorney for the media outlets, argued that, while chambers can make whatever rules they want, the state’s open-records law still remains in effect — and would need to be repealed or changed for the Caucus’ argument to be true.
“What we have in the Freedom of Information Act is a statute enacted by both houses. And it is the law of South Carolina,” Bender said. “There is no legislation that has exempted the House Caucus from the Freedom of Information Act.”
Circuit Judge G. Thomas Cooper Jr. made no decision on whether to dismiss the case, giving attorneys on both sides 10 days to submit proposed orders. After the hearing, South Carolina Press Association executive director Bill Rogers told reporters he felt it was time for the caucus to be more open about its inner workings.
“It’s been a longstanding battle between the press and the caucus,” Rogers said. “It’s an issue that needs to be decided.”