Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Screw transparency - two lessons in hidden government and the piggy bank

I'd call your attention today from two stories from Columbia, S.C., that show how public officials do their best to hide the money that flows from the government "piggy bank."

Our first exhibit

A story from The Nerve on how EnginuitySC appears to be quietly stepping away from its much-touted nuclear initiative now that the V.C. Summer nuclear project has collapsed. But of even more interest to me is the info, deep in the story, that this government-backed nonprofit  has contracted out its management to a firm, Sagacious Partners, run by Engenuity's current and former directors.

(Also interesting to me is that Sagacious manages to neglect to mention Engenuity anywhere in its partners' bios that I can see (a search on the page turned up nada). And, yes, EngenuitySC is a quasi-public agency - it's often referenced that way in government reports and budgets, and it has received millions of state money, which makes it subject to the FOIA.)

The effect of contracting out management is to hide the actual salaries under a lump-sum payment to Sagacious (though an FOIA for the contract might be revealing, but not necessarily -- see the next entry). I invite you to tool through Engenuity's Form 990 tax return that The Nerve helpfully has linked to.

Our second exhibit ...

Comes from the investigative site Quorum Columbia, where investigative reporter Ron Aiken dropped an open records request on Richland County for details of what it's paid in legal bills recently.

The total? About $5 million.

Except the county won't say what it paid for. It redacted all the details.

 The site is by subscription, but here's an excerpt:
Quorum’s review of the County’s legal spending from May 2016 to August 2017 showed payments to:
  • McNair Law Firm (governmental affairs), $354,689
  • Gignilliat Savitz & Bettis (employment and labor law), $252,125
  • Attorney Malane S. Pike (governmental affairs, property tax/assessment issues), $260,933
  • Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough (governmental affairs), $45,104
  • Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein (governmental affairs, accounting and finance compliance), $207,979
  • Willoughby & Hoefer (governmental affairs), $3,874,488.
The amounts are easy to discover.
The work performed for them is not.
For this story Quorum asked for both the latest invoice and copy of the contract between the County and each of the firms listed. In the 44 pages provided, any and every mention of specific work performed by a firm on invoices submitted was completely redacted. The only information even hinting at the nature of the work came in generalized summaries in the original contracts between the firms and the County, some of which were signed long after the firm or individual was receiving large, regular payments from the County.
Here's an example:

As pointed out in the story, there's a real question here about flagrant abuse of the attorney-client privilege exemption, not to mention that taxpayers footed these bills for outside counsel when the county also has a well-paid legal office. (Aiken also provided a link to a PDF of the full county response. It's a beauty of redaction to behold.)

Just a reminder that even when a Legislature says clearly that the public's business is supposed to be ... well ... public, that's open to creative interpretation.



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