Days after FITSNews and the Murdaugh Murders Podcast published excerpts from 11 recorded phone calls that Alex Murdaugh made from Richland County Detention Center, Murdaugh’s “Bulldog attorneys” are suing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
The calls — which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from Richland County — give the public a closer look at Murdaugh’s machinations from behind bars and, as it turns out, directly contradict many of the claims that have been made by his attorneys, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, in an effort to gain his release from jail.
Harpootlian and Griffin filed their lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in South Carolina to prevent Richland County from releasing additional jailhouse calls under the Freedom of Information Act, citing the federal wiretapping statue.
Will Folks, founding editor of FITSNews, said Monday evening, ”We believe these are public records — as did the public entity which supplied them to us. We at FITSNews will continue to push for the release of all government records that are not protected under attorney-client privilege.”
In their lawsuit against D. Shane Kitchens — the interim director of Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center — Harpootlian and Griffin argue that Title III of the federal wiretapping statute “prohibits the disclosure of recorded telephone communications of inmates to the public in response to a records request.”
However, in a 2003 case (Smith v. U.S. Department of Justice), the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Title III does NOT prohibit the disclosure of such calls and therefore the calls are not exempt from FOIA.
“Smith correctly identifies the fundamental defect in the Government’s argument: the recordings he seeks were not the product of an ‘interception,’ consensual or otherwise, governed by Title III; therefore, they are not subject to whatever limitations Title III places upon the disclosure of information that does result from a covered interception.”
Harpootlian and Griffin argue in the lawsuit that “due to understaffing,” the Richland County jail “does not have any correctional officers who review and/or monitor inmate calls in the ordinary course of their duties.”
Because of this, they argue, the calls do not qualify for an exception to the wiretapping law.
But a review of Murdaugh’s call log from Oct. 19 though Dec. 9, shows that nearly every non-attorney call was “listened” to by a “dafernandez.” It is not clear whether this person works at the jail or another law enforcement agency.
Harpootlian and Griffin include the jail’s orientation guidebook and point out that, although inmates at the jail are told their calls are recorded and monitored, they are not informed that they can be provided to the public.
Ironically, this same guidebook prohibits inmates from exchanging money and other goods with each other and also prohibits inmates’ family members from putting money on other inmates’ accounts — two things Murdaugh has admitted to doing.
In South Carolina, a 2011 Attorney General’s opinion sought by Spartanburg County Detention Center, states that “consistent with the mandate of liberal construction under the FOIA, it could be concluded that inmates’ personal telephone calls should be construed as being subject to disclosure.”
On Monday evening, media attorney Jay Bender of Columbia said, ”If you know your calls are being recorded, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy. So … as long as the recordings are being made, and you make a request for access to them, the jail will be required to give you access to those recordings, because those are public records under the law.”
Alex Murdaugh is being held in lieu of $7 million bond and faces 74 charges, most of them felony financial crimes related to his alleged schemes to steal millions from clients. Murdaugh is also the only publicly named “person of interest” in the June 2021 murders of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul.
Though the calls include conversations between Murdaugh and his son and siblings, their release to the public is critical given the unique circumstances of the case.
The influential Murdaugh family has long had a reputation as receiving special consideration from law enforcement, particularly in Hampton County where they have loomed large over the community for generations.
Prior to Murdaugh’s recent legal troubles, he and other family members were under investigation for allegedly interfering with a 2019 investigation into Paul Murdaugh’s fatal boating under the influence case.
Furthermore, some of the calls FITSNews requested were referenced by Creighton Waters of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office in a memo expressing the state’s opposition to Murdaugh’s request for bond reconsideration in January.
“A review of the jail calls does NOT reveal a broken man reduced to assets of less than $10,000, but rather an experienced lawyer constantly maneuvering to protect and maximize his assets despite his alleged criminal conduct,” Waters wrote.
To read more of Waters’ comments on Murdaugh’s calls, click here.
FITSNews news director Mandy Matney, host of the Murdaugh Murders Podcast, said of the calls: “Alex Murdaugh is a public figure. He worked as a volunteer solicitor under Duffie Stone for a number of years and allegedly used and abused our legal system in the process. … Public scrutiny in this case is paramount to holding agencies accountable. The phone calls were newsworthy considering that it appears that Alex was still up to money-moving schemes while behind bars. If we’ve learned anything in this case, it’s that transparency is the only way to fight corruption.”
“The Post and Courier filed a formal request for the tapes, as well as other Murdaugh records that have been provided to media outlets, on Feb. 22. The county has not responded to the newspaper’s request,” Wilks and Smith wrote.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Liz Farrell is the new executive editor at FITSNews. She was named 2018’s top columnist in the state by South Carolina Press Association and is back after taking a nearly two-year break from corporate journalism to reclaim her soul. Email her at [email protected] or tweet her @ElizFarrell.
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