On May 22, state Attorney General Henry McMaster announced his formal opinion that the House Republican Caucus meets the legal definition of a “public body” and is subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
A little back story is in order.
The House GOP caucus meets for a weekly Tuesday breakfast that is open to the press, but the caucus regularly bars reporters from its luncheons.
The State newspaper and the S.C. Press Association pressured the caucus to open its doors to the Fourth Estate.
House Majority Leader Jim Merrill (R-Chas.) and Rep. Todd Rutherford (R-Richland) requested a formal opinion from McMaster’s office after repeatedly rebuffing the news organizations.
McMaster, who is the former state GOP chairman but not a party stooge, was asked four questions.
First, does the majority caucus constitute a “public body” subject to FOI Act strictures?
Second, does the majority caucus constitute a “public body” only when it gathers in sufficient numbers to become a quorum of the entire House of Representatives?
Third, are the majority caucus’ planned meetings subject to the FOI Act’s requirements of advanced notice and postings?
Finally, are caucus meeting records covered by the FOI Act?
The definition of “public body” is extremely important with respect to the majority caucus, as the S.C. House’s entire Republican membership are members, totalling 74 lawmakers.
With more than half the entire House membership in the caucus, even Helen Keller could see the group has the power to affect governmental affairs in addition to political strategy.
And, it would appear, so did Henry McMaster.
In the formal opinion, McMaster wrote, “In our view, the majority caucus is supported in whole or in part by public funds and is expending public funds. Thus, the majority caucus is a ‘public body.'”
Unfortunately, Jim Merrill looks at the issue differently, and in a statement, he said the caucus “will continue to vigorously defend our position” that the group is not a “public body.”
McMaster cited the rent-free office space, clerical staff, and even utilities as publicly-funded benefits enjoyed by the majority caucus.
Although McMaster’s formal opinion is not binding, it does put a bump in the road for the caucus should it continue to fight the press and be litigated for their trouble.
Merrrill’s statement went on: “The Republican Caucus has never taken a binding vote behind closed doors on public policy and has no power or desire to do so.”
Uh-huh, but The Eye bets Merrill has done his fair share of nose-counting, back-slapping, and arm-twisting behind said doors.
Rutherford told The State that he expected bipartisan support for a House rules change to exempt respective party caucuses from FOI strictures, “It’s one of those things where we’re both in the same boat on this.”
Don’t be so sure there, Toddster!
Earlier in the current session, the House Democratic Caucus stated that its membership believed the group did constitute a “public body” and would voluntarily follow FOI Act requirements.
McMaster’s opinion leaves open the possibility for the House to do just as Rutherford indicated in his comments.
House rules do indeed allow lawmakers to exempt their respective caucuses from the FOI Act and don’t need approval from the Senate or governor’s office.
So much for all that much-touted Republican “accountability.”
Lord knows that things creep along at a curious pace in these parts, but The Eye thinks that these morons would notice what’s going on in Washington, D.C. as the president’s veil of secrecy falls away and more congressmen are being led away on corruption charges.
What are they afraid of? That South Carolinians will find out that the business of the General Assembly is business — especially for the elected leadership? Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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