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Why Freedom Of Information Matters

Introducing our first FOIA report card …

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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) plays an indispensable role when it comes to providing transparency and accountability in government. It allows the public to request and obtain information that belongs to them – records which could identify issues within various taxpayer-funded agencies. Public access to public documents has never been more critical South Carolina in the aftermath of the ‘Murdaugh Murders‘ crime and corruption saga.

This is especially true in Hampton County – where many of convicted killer Alex Murdaugh‘s crimes were initiated. Unfortunately, county government is currently facing intense scrutiny amid a wave of investigations and allegations of financial mismanagement.

For more than two years, concerned taxpayers have been calling for a forensic audit to assure transparency in light of alleged fraud, millions in missing or misspent funds and a habitual failure to report required financial information with the county.

It’s the second time in two years Hampton County has been sanctioned by the S.C. treasurer’s office for failing to submit a required independent audit report. The most recent failure marks the latest in a series of events signaling all is not well with the management of the county’s finances. In other words, the most basic measures put in place to prevent fraudulent activities – and to assure transparency for taxpayers – are being sidestepped or ignored. Mandatory stewardship is not being provided.

Despite the delays, a draft audit report for the fiscal year ending in 2023 was recently posted to the county website. The report – which came in the wake of news of two investigations into the county government by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and reports of a former employee hacking into the county system and deleting hundreds of emails – did little to bolster the citizen’s confidence in the local government.

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RELATED | HAMPTON MISMANAGEMENT PROMPTS INVESTIGATIONS

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The turmoil surrounding Hampton County’s lax financial oversight was brought to light in January 2022 via a letter from a citizens’ group to state leaders after an audit revealed millions of dollars tied to the county’s Capital Projects Sales Tax (CPST) went missing or were misspent.

Once filed with the treasurer’s office, the recent audit report – compiled by the external accounting firm of Mauldin & Jenkins LLC – releases the state’s freeze on government funds provided to the cash-strapped county, but that’s where the good news ends. As the report noted, “a deficiency in internal control exists when the design or operation of a control does not allow management or employees, in the normal course of performing their assigned functions, to prevent, or detect and correct misstatements on a timely basis.”

Mirroring the concerns of the many citizens of the county …

In an effort to independently examine where the missing millions of dollars may have gone – and to determine what the citizens of Hampton County believe members of county council are attempting to keep hidden, this news outlet submitted a very detailed FOIA request to Hampton County on March 21, 2024.

Among the items we sought were:

  • The current employment contract for Hampton County Administrator Lavar Youmans
  • Calendar records from January 2024 – March 2024 for Hampton County Administrator Lavar Youmans
  • Travel expenses incurred, with supporting detail, for the period July 1, 2023 – March 2024 for each of the following elected officials and/or employees:
    • Former Chairman Noah Alexander
    • Councilman Roy Hollingsworth
    • Councilman Jordan “J. J.” Jinks
    • Councilwoman Camille Welch
    • Councilman Darin Williams
    • County Administrator, Mr. Lavar Youmans
    • Copy of credit card statements periods January 2023 – March 2024 Year to date for each council member noted above
    • Copy of credit card statement for Administrator Lavar Youmans from January 2024 – March 21, 2024.
  • Copy of cover letters, resumes, and applications as submitted to county council for each of the “finalists” for the position of County Administrator who were interviewed and referenced in Councilman Jinks recent letter to the editor of the Charleston Post Courier
  • Copy of any and all contracts or agreements executed to date 2024 for professional or other services provided to Hampton County
  • Copy of any and all nondisclosure agreements (NDA) on behalf of Hampton County executed to date in 2024 for professional or other services
  • Hampton County’s Organization Chart

The request was sent to county administrator Lavar Youmans, county attorney Algernon Solomons along with a copy to the assistant to the county council.

Their response?

Nada.

There has been zero response to this request – not even an acknowledgement it was received, or a response to any of the follow-up emails or messages left at the phone number listed for the county administration.

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In a county riddled with allegations of financial mismanagement, the administration’s lack of transparency is extremely concerning. More alarmingly, the administration’s lack of appreciation for the importance of transparency during such a tumultuous time for the county has been mirrored by the actions of the county council – the very individuals elected to represent the best interests of the citizens.

Two months after our FOIA request, Hampton’s county council held a meeting at which the audit findings were discussed. During that meeting, there was a presentation from the deputy director of the South Carolina Department of Archives which focused on educating the county on documentation requirements. At one point during the presentation, Hampton County councilman Jordan “JJ” Jinks asked an interesting question of the presenter about the implications of not responding to FOIA requests.

“So if it’s requested and not produced either way, what’s the penalty?” Jinks asked.

The deputy director, seemingly taken aback by the question, responded simply, “there is no penalty built into the Public Records Act for not producing it, other than someone can file a lawsuit against you under the Freedom of Information Act. And it’s up to the court decide what your penalty is going to be.”

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This concerning question and frank response led some community members to wonder if ignoring FOIA requests is going to be the plan forward – requiring those seeking transparency to file a lawsuit against the county.

If so, that’s a risky plan.

In August of 2023, former chief justice Jean Toal, ruled in favor of Gray Television LLC – determining the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) had violated South Carolina’s FOIA laws by refusing an open records requests for a defendant’s recorded conversations from the Sheriff Al Cannon detention center.

In her ruling, Toal stated exemptions to FOIA laws “should be narrowly construed” – and do not allow “blanket prohibition of disclosure.” She ordered Charleston County to pay their attorney’s fees and costs which totaled $33,175.00.

Oh, and to turn over the public documents.

In a situation such as the one facing Hampton County, the public’s right to records that could provide insight into the alleged mismanagement of their tax dollars far exceeds any possible exemptions the county may try to cite – although that would require them to actually respond to the requests.

As FITSNews moves forward in seeking transparency and accountability from the government entities throughout the Palmetto State and beyond, our outlet will provide reports – both good and bad – on the taxpayer-funded agencies upon which our citizens rely and trust.

Our first report card – which goes to both Hampton County Administration and County Council – is a resounding failure.

We have left messages for administrators in an effort to gain insight into their lack of responsiveness to our FOIA requests – along with their lack of responsiveness to multiple citizen’s requests. Assuming we ever receive a reply, we will post it here in keeping with our open microphone policy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Jenn Wood (Provided)

Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at jenn@fitsnews.com.

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3 comments

Goody3 Top fan June 13, 2024 at 8:44 am

Business as usual ……..

Reply
Stacie Byrd Top fan June 13, 2024 at 11:37 am

Wow! Just WOW! I have zero confidence anything will be sorted out in SC. The corruption is in every crack and crevice.

Reply
MaryContrary Top fan June 28, 2024 at 10:40 am

Nothing to see here folks. Just move on…..Yeah, sure. They know a jury will back them in Hampton County. They aren’t motivated to comply. Would love to see massive fines imposed to require them to comply. Corruption needs to be exposed.

Reply

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