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Audit uncovers inconsistencies in FOI compliance

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SOUTH CAROLINA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Nov.

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SOUTH CAROLINA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Nov. 17, 2005


Audit uncovers inconsistencies in FOI compliance

  • Law enforcement agencies and public officials do not consistently abide by open meeting and open records laws, according to an audit that is sparking a push for strengthening the laws.

Nov. 17, 2005  ·   A statewide review of how law enforcement agencies, county officials and school boards in South Carolina respond to records requests and open meeting laws uncovered several violations of the state Freedom of Information Act, spurring some advocates to push for changes in the state law in 2006.

Among the reactions to records requests that The Associated Press reported:

  • “You can’t have that.” – Chicquetta Fullilove, Charleston Police Department supervisor.

  • “You don’t know who he is. . . . He may attack someone.” – Charles Francis, Charleston Police Department, defending Fullilove’s outright denial of access to the incident reports. Francis later spoke with a lawyer, AP reported, finding his agency had been failing to follow the FOI law since 1991.

  • “I don’t keep up with the laws as far as what can and cannot be released.” – Lt. Jackie Crawford, McCormick County Sheriff’s Office.

  • “I can only release what they give news stations, that’s all I can give you.” – Bridget Bryan, Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office, referring to news releases provided to news organizations.

The audit, led by AP and joined by the South Carolina Press Association and 16 South Carolina daily newspapers, contained findings from surveys distributed to nearly 200 members of county councils and school boards as well as data from visits to 65 sheriff’s offices and police departments. Research for the audit began mid-September and ended earlier this month. Reporters and other newspaper representatives handed out 13-question surveys to the officials, asking them about the state’s laws on executive sessions, the closed-door meetings the law allows only in extremely specific circumstances.

Media representatives also visited police departments across the state as members of the public to request crime incident reports. The journalists did not divulge their media ties unless asked explicitly, in an attempt to see if the agency released the same number of records to the public as to the press.

Twelve sheriff’s departments and five police departments out of the 65 agencies visited refused to let people review crime and accident reports, which are public information by law, and many charged high rates for copies. The general public is supposed to be able to obtain reports at a reasonable cost, typically the cost of duplication. The Freedom of Information Act requires police to make available crime incident reports for the previous 14 days.

“The law is very clear. [The reports] must be provided,” state Attorney General Henry McMaster told AP.

Three-fourths of the law enforcement agencies complied with the requests in full, Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association told the AP.

“The ones that didn’t, I don’t know why they didn’t,” he said, saying that in some instances, the staff may have been unclear as to what they were supposed to disclose to the public.

The report shows that reporters were treated better than the general public in many cases. Once their news affiliation was divulged, agencies were more willing to waive fees and, in some cases, to hand over reports.

The audit found that the Aiken and Greenville County Sheriffs’ Departments charged the most for incident reports, requesting $6 per record.

“I think Greenville is trying to make money off the citizens requesting information, and that’s contrary to the law, ” Jay Bender, an attorney representing news organizations, told AP.

Law enforcement agencies in Anderson County, Camden, Kershaw County, Lancaster, Newberry County and Saluda all charged $5 for the records — a price McMaster protested.

“A lot of people just don’t have five or six dollars to put down for a copy of a document from their government,” he told the AP. “The cost ought to be free or either rock-bottom low.”

Tabulating the charges imposed by 32 of the 65 agencies audited, researchers found that the average cost was about $2.87.

The review also looked at how elected officials conducted public business in closed-meetings, and whether their idea of proper executive session practice fell within state law.

A quarter of the elected officials who responded said they had spoken on topics in executive sessions beyond what they had told the public they would discuss. The survey also showed that three-quarters of the nearly 200 officials questioned were willing to sign affidavits swearing they stayed on track in regards to their closed conversations, but not as willing to record those conversations.

The findings have prompted discussion about possible changes to the open meetings and records laws next year. Legislators can expect to see proposals to change the executive session law to potentially include signing mandatory affidavits, and to limit copying costs for crime and incident reports to the public, according to the S.C. Press Association.

KT


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