In a few weeks, the S.C. Press Association will nominate the best journalists and stories of 2005 among the Palmetto State’s daily and weekly newspapers. Among the major dailies, this should be cause for celebration, because 2005 has been a good year for the ink-stained set.

I will point first to “Tarnished Badges,” the excellent multi-part investigation by Ron Menchaca and Glenn Smith of The Post and Courier. The series explained how loopholes in state law, budget cuts, and mistakes have hampered South Carolina’s ability to monitor and discipline its 14,000 law enforcement officers.

Since the beginning of time, police officers in South Carolina have been allowed to move from one agency to another with few questions asked. There was no record of their misconduct or incompetence to follow them and little effort made to check up on transient cops. Smith and Menchaca presented case after case of officers using excessive force and committing other misdeeds. In one case, a Charleston police officer beat a suspected car thief to death with his fists in the police department; in another case, a State Ports Authority officer drew his gun and held it to a man’s head in a dispute over a traffic ticket; another officer, on several occasions, faked shooting incidents to make himself appear heroic in the line of duty. All of these officers were still carrying guns and badges when the series began.

Smith’s and Menchaca’s series started on March 5, with a litany of police horror stories and an analysis of how the state’s budget-cutting frenzy had crippled the psychological screening program for prospective officers. On March 7, Gov. Mark Sanford called an emergency meeting of his top law enforcement officials and promised to deal with troubled police officers in the state. The immediate result of the “Tarnished Badges” series is that a number of bad cops were disciplined or fired. It remains to be seen whether the State Police Academy will get the funding it needs to do its job of screening, tracking, and disciplining police officers. Sanford’s irrational hatred of taxes continues to deprive the state of valuable services and puts our citizens at risk. But Smith and Menchaca get a hearty salute for bringing this critical failure of police management to the public’s attention.

In Columbia, The State newspaper also had a good year, breaking a huge story about Pentagon waste and abuse in its prime vendor purchasing program. By using prime vendors rather than competitive bids for mundane supplies, the Pentagon says it streamlines the procurement process. But it also wastes billions of taxpayer dollars, and the Pentagon shows no interest in changing its ways.

One example of Pentagon profligacy cited in The State series was the $20 plastic ice cube trays — the same trays you pay 89 cents for at the Piggly Wiggly. Another was the $23,000 mini-refrigerator. One such refrigerator, wheeled in front of the House Armed Services Committee, prompted Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) to remark, “That looks like it cost $99.99 at Lowe’s.”

Prompted by The State’s investigation, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee has begun hearings on the Pentagon’s prime vendor purchasing program. It remains to be seen whether the solons will actually do anything to curb this scandalous Pentagon program. A Republican Congress that is always eager to cut “waste and abuse” from such social programs as food stamps and Medicare can be extremely sympathetic when the waste and abuse is going to Pentagon contractors. But The State deserves high commendation for bringing the issue to the public’s attention.

Scribes in Greenville have also been busy. The Greenville News reported a few weeks ago that the state paid $256 million to private consultants to work on 72 road and bridge projects around the state since 1999. An analysis by The News showed that the state Department of Transportation could have gotten the same job done for $168 million by hiring extra workers, rather than outsourcing the work to Fluor Daniel and Parsons Brikenhoff Quade and Douglas, two giant contractors. Now several key legislators say they will review the contracts to see if the work should have been done in-house at DOT, as critics have suggested.

Critical to the success of journalists is the voluntary compliance by public officials with the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In November, The Associated Press, the S.C. Press Association, and newspapers in the state reported that many public officials used executive sessions to discuss public matters that were not meant to be protected by executive session. The same investigation revealed that police agencies — including the Charleston Police Department — often failed to comply with the FOIA. We may see legislation to address both of these shortcomings.

When journalists do their jobs well — and it seems they have in 2005 — they help make South Carolina a safer, better place to live.

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