State Sen. Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin have failed to convince a judge that any further release of their client’s jailhouse calls would be considered a violation of federal wiretapping laws, according to a strongly worded order issued last week.
Earlier this year, FITSNews and Murdaugh Murders Podcast exclusively released recordings of Murdaugh’s calls with content that directly contradicted publicly made statements from Harpootlian and Griffin, and that showed Murdaugh was — in the words of the state prosecutor — not acting like a man who has no money.
Because the Murdaugh case is complex and could take years to adjudicate — and because a commonly held belief about the Murdaugh family is that “anything they get in, they get out of” — FITSNews and Murdaugh Murders Podcast have maintained that the release of Murdaugh’s calls is essential to holding the state’s justice system to account.
FITSNews founding editor Will Folks said Sunday: “Accountability cannot happen without transparency — and public trust cannot be achieved unless we have both. This is a critical early test of our state’s commitment to transparency — and the people are watching.”
The Murdaugh case is about far more than the individual crimes that have been alleged thus far.
“This is a case of public corruption where the public has a right to keep its systems in check,” FITSNews news director and Murdaugh Murders Podcast host Mandy Matney said Sunday. “Up until his arrest, Alex was a public official and we, the press, as agents of public interest are entitled by statute, by case law and by duty to hold agencies accountable for the public good. Restricting access to information held in these public records only stands to further deepen public distrust for its already tarnished systems. The need for transparency has never been as great as it is now.”
After releasing FITSNews’ initial request for the recordings, Richland County seemed poised to release dozens more calls made by Murdaugh, but in April suddenly reversed course and said, “A motion for preliminary injunction was filed against the interim director of the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center on March 1, 2022. We have decided to withhold the release of the audio recordings pending the final order of the court in this matter.”
In a 20-page order issued June 1, United States Judge Cameron McGowan Currie denied Murdaugh’s request for this “preliminary injunction.”
It is not yet clear whether the county will live up to its word now that the injunction has been officially denied. Both FITSNews and Murdaugh Murders Podcast will continue to fight for release of the tapes.
Harpootlian and Griffin likely filed their case in federal court because South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act allows for the release of inmate phone calls, which are recorded.
Further, a 2011 opinion from the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office addressed this very issue and said that “it could be concluded that inmates’ personal telephone calls should be construed as being subject to disclosure, especially where some form of express or implied consent can be construed to have been in place.”
DON’T MISS A STORY …
Inmates and their interlocutors are made aware that their calls are being recorded. In fact, Murdaugh reminded family members several times during their calls that they were being monitored.
After our publication of the calls in late February, The (Charleston) Post and Courier and The State newspapers immediately FOIA’d for their own copies. Yet in their stories about Murdaugh’s lawsuit, they each published a nearly identical and unattributed sentence, opining that it is “rare” for state detention centers to release inmate calls to the press.
It is perhaps more accurate to say that few reporters ask for them — because as a journalist I have requested inmate calls in the past and I received them without issue.
Murdaugh’s calls were liberally cited in the South Carolina Attorney General’s memo in opposition to Murdaugh’s request for bond reconsideration in January.
FITSNews has not requested calls that would be considered attorney-client privilege.
While the vast majority of inmate calls would be of limited interest to the public, it is clear that the Murdaugh case is a wild exception — particularly as it relates to transparency.
In her order, McGowan Currie notes that her order is based solely on Harpootlian and Griffin’s federal wiretapping law argument and that Murdaugh was not seeking relief for our FOIA request. She mentions that the calls might be exempt from release under state law, which — in part — allows for the nondisclosure of law enforcement information that would deprive a person of their right to a fair trial.
However, it would be difficult for Harpootlian and Griffin to claim this exemption based on their own nationally televised admissions of their client’s guilt in stealing millions from his law firm.
Also, several news specials have already aired about the Murdaugh case, and Murdaugh is the subject of several high-profile projects that are speeding their way to production and are likely to be out before trial, such as documentaries, book deals, as well as TV and movie deals.
One question we’d certainly have for Harpootlian and Griffin if they were to claim the calls impede Murdaugh’s “right to a fair trial” is in what, if any, entertainment deals they might be involved or in what projects they’ve participated. Because if they were involved in any entertainment deals or projects one might conclude that they were stalling release of the recordings simply to heighten the value of their own project.
In our January request for phone calls, Richland County held back a handful of calls citing the exemption that allows them to withhold information that could be construed as an “unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.”
We were told that they did not have the ability to redact portions of the call and therefore could not release it at all.
According to Richland County’s Ombudsman’s Office, the additional calls FITSNews requested had already been evaluated and were ready to be sent to us upon the court’s decision.
“The first round of calls revealed exactly how much public corruption we have in this case,” Matney said. “The calls are absolutely worthy and were aired because of their newsworthiness — not for the sake of entertainment.”
To read the judge’s order, click here.
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.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to address proactively? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.
SOUTH CAROLINA’S LATEST NEWS IN YOUR INBOX …