What about the watchdog function of the press?

By Kevin boozer

March 20, 2014

This week is Sunshine Week, a time for celebrating the role the media plays in helping ensure the public has access to public records.

In some cases, such as police reports or council agendas/minutes, the case of whether a record is public is pretty cut and dry. In other instances, the situation is less clear.

The biggest Freedom of Information Act investigation I have been involved in to this point in my career involved the former county administrator in Fairfield County.

He allegedly viewed obscene images on his county computer and the public learned of it.

A news reporter’s request to view the hard drive was met with an estimated charge of nearly $30,000 in legal fees.

Neither he, nor I, ever were able to view the hard drive.

A SLED investigation found the images on the computer were not pornographic. The packet of images leaked to me by someone in the community who alleged the images came from the county computer left nothing to the imagination except one thing: Did the images in fact come from that hard drive and did the man in question, who ultimately resigned, view them on the county computer?

Those questions remain in the back of my mind though the case is closed and the black eye for that county has healed, to an extent.

The investigation was prompted, in part, by private citizens who learned more about the FOIA process and exercised that right to watchdog the county and town.

On the record I will say the relationship I had with the county public relations staff on every other issue was one of mutual respect and trust.

My boss said the timeliness with their release of information and their cooperation was some of the best she had seen from an FOIA standpoint in her career which spans several states and several decades.

The FOIA issue hits close to home for this paper, as well.

Freelance journalist Sue Summer, a contributor for The Observer, has covered the case of a lawsuit involving the estate of the late James Brown.

During her investigation, she requested documents and there was controversy within the attorney general’s office as to if those documents were public or private.

A hearing was held April 29, 2013 but to date there has been no ruling on the case.

One of the disputed documents was released by a federal judge in November 2013 and was declared to be public per that judge’s opinion.

Summer waits, as do the children who would benefit from the dollars in the Brown estate if the estate were used as Brown’s will requested. That incident was used as a teaching tool for journalists.

Bill Rogers with the S.C. Press Association did a story about Sue Summer’s attempts to access public information in a S.C. Press e-newsletter.

That resource is one journalists throughout the state read to learn more about the profession and stay up on law, trends, etc.

In his column today, Rogers highlights other cases where journalists act in the interest of the public to make sure government officials are open and forthright with information.

When I attend meetings and ask questions, it’s done on behalf of those who cannot be there as well as on behalf of our readers.

The ability of the press to have access to information is the function of healthy democracy, so we should be thankful for the activists and journalists who continue to push for FOIA reforms and for government transparency.

Kevin Boozer is a staff writer for The Newberry Observer and can be reached at Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.