COLUMBIA (AP) - A South Carolina judge has ruled the state's Department of Commerce illegally withheld information about expensive economic development deals it was required to disclose to the public and to news outlets through records requests.
Circuit Judge Robert Hood last week ruled the South Carolina Department of Commerce violated the state's Freedom of Information Act by keeping from the public details about millions of dollars in state grants and tax incentives awarded to corporations, The Post and Courier reported Monday.
Democratic state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who represents the capital city of Columbia, filed the lawsuit last year. He questioned whether some deals were worth what the state paid, according to the newspaper.
He sued after commerce officials refused to provide him with contracts, communications with companies the department was entering into deals with and cost-benefit studies for such deals. He requested the information under the state's open records law, but some records he received were redacted and others were not provided at all, the newspaper reported.
"There's no other state agency that gets a pass like this on how they spend money," The Post and Courier quoted Harpootlian as saying. "It's billions and billions of dollars being spent without any transparency."
Commerce officials argued the information was proprietary and that they were following long-standing procedures by not releasing the details.
Hood contended the agency couldn't withhold public information because it did so in the past.
A Department of Commerce spokeswoman said the agency "respectfully disagrees" with the ruling and is assessing its legal options. She did not say whether the agency planned to change its policies.
Harpootlian urged Republican Gov. Henry McMaster to require the agency to increase the department's transparency and order it to follow the open records law.
Brian Symmes, a spokesman for McMaster, said the governor thinks the department should not abuse the law but also acknowledged the balance of attracting business to the state.
"It's important to remember that the competition between states for jobs and investment is fierce," The Post and Courier quoted Symmes as saying. "State law provides very limited exemptions from the public disclosure of a private business' proprietary information. Those exemptions shouldn't be abused, but South Carolina also shouldn't disarm itself in this competition for jobs and investment."
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