- Associated Press - Thursday, April 27, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A coalition of news outlets including The Associated Press has sued the state House Republican Caucus in South Carolina to gain access to information about an investigation into possible Statehouse corruption.

The lawsuit filed Thursday asks a judge to declare that the caucus is a public body subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, and as such, should make its records and meetings public.

Caucus attorney Mark Moore said he hasn’t reviewed the lawsuit but is comfortable with the caucus’s legal positions.

The AP sought a copy of the state grand jury’s subpoena of House GOP records and all documents the caucus provided for Solicitor David Pascoe’s investigation. Moore has not yet responded to that FOIA request.

The caucus has denied a request from The State newspaper to view payment records to the firms of Richard Quinn and his son, Rep. Rick Quinn, who, as former majority leader, led the caucus from 1999 through 2004.

Richard Quinn declined Thursday to comment on the case or lawsuit. Rick Quinn did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

Neither has been charged with any crime. But the millions of dollars the Quinns have collected and spent on behalf of clients have become central to an investigation that began with the 2014 prosecution of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor campaign spending violations.

Former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, who led the caucus for four years after Quinn, was indicted in December with illegally profiting from his position. The Charleston Republican, who has his own political consulting firm, said he’s done nothing illegal. He is suspended until the case is resolved.

“You would think that a group of state officials which has had one of its members convicted of misconduct in office, has one of its members currently under indictment for misconduct in office, and another member whose activities led to his inclusion in a … report on corruption in the General Assembly would want to make its records and meetings public to demonstrate that its affairs are honestly conducted, but that is not the case with this group,” said Jay Bender, the news outlets’ attorney.

The coalition also includes The State newspaper of Columbia, The Post and Courier of Charleston, The Greenville News, the South Carolina Press Association, and South Carolina Broadcasters Association.

In 2006, then-Attorney General Henry McMaster issued an opinion saying the majority caucus is subject to the state’s public records law because it uses office space rent-free in a taxpayer-funded legislative building and is assisted by House staff, whose salaries are paid by taxpayers.

“The caucus is supported by publicly funded equipment and space” and spends public money, the current governor wrote to Merrill, who had sought the opinion.

McMaster added in his nonbinding opinion that the Legislature could pass a law or a chamber rule to address the issue. The state’s public records law already exempted the correspondence of individual legislators and their staffs, but not caucuses. A House rule allows caucuses to pay for office rental and equipment use. It’s unclear if the GOP caucus does so.

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