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Taxpayer-funded nonprofits are not immune to FOIA

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Donna Linsin

Did you know that taxpayers are helping to fund a nonprofit business enterprise whose attorneys lobby the Statehouse while this business directs and dictates public policies to South Carolina’s county councils? This practice creates a conflict because taxpayer funds are being spent to lobby for an agenda that taxpayers cannot vote on and for policy positions that might not be supported by taxpayers. This business enterprise is the S.C. Association of Counties (SCAC).
Every county in South Carolina is a member of SCAC, and your tax dollars are being used to help fund this business enterprise. The association has four staff attorneys who are registered as lobbyists with the State Ethics Commission – Robert Croom, Wesley Covington, M. Kent Lesesne and Timothy Winslow.
Several weeks ago, I submitted a state Freedom of Information (FOIA) request to SCAC to obtain their financial statements for 2009 through 2012. However, my request was turned down.
In a written response to my request, the organization’s senior staff attorney, M. Clifton Scott said SCAC is a private, nonprofit business enterprise organized pursuant to the S.C. Nonprofit Corporation Act, and that funds the association receives from member counties are for specific services provided by the association on an “arms-length” basis. He further said that the S.C. Supreme Court has previously held that when public funds are received by a business enterprise for goods or services, the enterprise is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Under the FOIA, the definition of public body (Section 30-4-20) includes “any organization, corporation or agency supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds.”
In a policy position for this year on county government and intergovernmental relations, SCAC said it supports disclosure of local government actions through citizen access to public records. Why does the association need to hide from public scrutiny while at the same time supporting full disclosure of public records?
If SCAC doesn’t want to disclose how taxpayer monies are being used in its organization, why should our counties continue to be members and dole out taxpayer monies to this private enterprise that lobbies our Statehouse?
Most likely, candidates for county councils in all of our counties used two words in their campaigns – communication and transparency. If elected county councils are contributing to the funding of SCAC, and the association is spending our money, what happened to communication and transparency when the people who are paying the bills are denied access to the financial records of how their tax money is being spent by the group?
Recently, SCAC entered into an agreement with Tax Management Associates Inc. (TMA) of Charlotte to assist counties with “revenue-enhancement initiatives,” according to SCAC’s website. TMA’s goal is to increase revenues, but why aren’t county councils addressing initiatives to reduce spending? Is this the kind of influence that taxpayers want? Is this beneficial to taxpayers when counties have wasted and spent taxpayer monies unwisely, and want to increase our taxes? What has happened to fiscal responsibility?
The SCAC isn’t the only group whose transparency is being questioned. In a case pending before the S.C. Supreme Court, Charleston radio host Rocky Disabato, or “Rocky D,” sought records in 2009 from the S.C. Association of School Administrators (SCASA) relating to the group’s position on the federal stimulus-funding law, contending that the organization was a public body under the Freedom of Information Act. The case initially was heard in 2011 by a circuit court judge who ruled that the FOIA does not apply to SCASA because it would interfere with the group’s free-speech rights. As with SCAC, SCASA also has lobbyists registered with the State Ethics Commission.
Isn’t there something wrong when taxpayers are paying for government-to-government lobbying and taxpayer funds are being used to influence legislation and appropriations at the state level? This is called taxpayer-funded lobbying, and it diminishes the people’s power over state and local issues that may not be beneficial to taxpayers. Why are we allowing SCAC to operate as a bully pulpit for county councils when their policy positions might be in direct conflict with our own ideas and goals?
Isn’t it time we ask our county councils to stop funding the SCAC and protect our interests and not the interests of a business enterprise? Why does this business enterprise seek taxpayer funding when it does not want to disclose how taxpayer funds are being used and for what purpose?
If this organization does not want to turn its records over to the public, then maybe it should re-organize and be supported entirely on private funds.

Donna Linsin is an Oconee County resident and citizen reporter for TheNerve.org.