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County working on severance package FOIA request

Posted: June 11, 2018 5:09 p.m.
Updated: June 12, 2018 1:00 a.m.
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In a response dated June 6, just two days prior to a 20-workday deadline, Assistant Kershaw County Attorney H. Thomas Morgan Jr. notified the Chronicle-Independent of the county’s intent to respond to a S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request concerning severance packages to county employees during the last 10 years.

The request came up after the C-I learned former Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) administrative assistant Samantha Connell -- who was arrested May 3 for allegedly embezzling an undisclosed amount of money from the KCSO’s sex offender registry fund -- received a $22,150 payment in October 2016, some five months after she left the sheriff’s office.

Under the S.C. FOIA, public bodies and the government normally have 15 working days to indicate whether or not they plan to answer a request and then 30 calendar days to fulfill that request. Since the C-I asked for severance package information for a period of more than two years, the FOIA stretches out those times to 20 working days and 35 calendar days, respectively.

In this case, since Morgan’s letter is dated June 6, the county has until July 11 to provide its records to the C-I.

In his letter, Morgan states, “The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act is applicable to public documents and the ‘right to inspect or copy any public record of a public body…’ which are not chosen to be exempted by the public body is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.”

In replying to his letter, the C-I noted that the phrase “which are not chosen to be exempted by the public body” does not appear in the S.C. FOIA. It is the newspaper’s opinion that the county cannot determine a record can be withheld from the public beyond what the state allows. Section 30-4-40 of the S.C. FOIA lists out specific exemptions -- records and information that can be withheld from the public.

Those exemptions only include:

• trade secrets;

• information of a personal nature where public disclosure would be an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy;

• law enforcement records, video or audio recordings, but only in very specific circumstances -- otherwise, law enforcement records are considered to be public;

• matters specifically exempted by other state law;

• contractual arrangements, including proposed sales and purchases of property, prior to the execution of those contracts (in other words, during negotiations);

• compensation paid by public bodies, except in specific circumstances (the most notable of these being that compensation -- salary, benefits and other payments -- of public employees making $50,000 or more);

• correspondence or other work of attorneys for a public body (although it is not considered blanket protection for all documents ever handled by a law firm for that public body); and

• employment applications for positions being filled by a public body, except for those applicants seriously considered for the position.

There are other exemptions concerning the General Assembly; certain S.C. Department of Revenue records; university donor records and propriety university research materials; whistleblower identification; and records involving endowments and pensions, bridge structural plans and designs, and autopsies.

In a reply emailed Monday, the C-I asked the county to cite specific exemptions under the S.C. FOIA if it withholds any records or information connected to its request about the employee severance packages.

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