What part of 'public'
do some not understand?
Saturday, August 17, 2013 8:00 PM
It turns out some readers - at least, that is, some who are reading our online content and commenting - think the newspaper is wrong for using the Freedom of Information Act to find out how the Greenwood County Sheriff's Office spent some dollars out of its accounts.
The fact no one in the county, including Sheriff Tony Davis, is arguing the financial documents are outside the realm of public information is a clear indication the taxpayers have a right to know how thousands of dollars across seven accounts kept and managed by the sheriff's office were spent.
The fact South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is, at the sheriff's request, investigating the expenditures opens the possibility to criminal wrongdoing in the office.
Oh, and then there is this tidbit: County taxpayers' dollars do flow in and through the sheriff's office, paying salaries, paying for vehicles, gasoline for those vehicles, equipment and more.
SO, FROM OUR VANTAGE POINT, it would seem wholly appropriate the newspaper - or anyone from the public - would look into the expenditures. Frankly, public documents, by their very nature, can be viewed essentially anytime, but it's logical they would be examined thoroughly when there's plenty of chatter about possible abuse or misuse of funds in an elected official's purview.
That anyone would think this situation should not be explored is hard to comprehend. One reader said the paper should simply wait this out, see if there are any criminal charges filed against someone. While the newspaper is not SLED or any other type of law enforcement agency, the paper does have a duty and obligation to act as a government watchdog on behalf of taxpayers. We spend the time others would like to spend poring through documents and investigating. But to suggest we simply wait to see if charges are filed is ludicrous. Imagine how very different a path history would have taken had two Washington Post reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, ignored information put before them.
This is not an attempt to draw a parallel between Watergate and the curious spending habits of a sheriff's office. It is, however, an attempt to show not all wrongdoing is uncovered by law enforcement and law enforcement doesn't own the marketplace when it comes to investigating possible wrongdoing. Again, the watchdog role newspapers have willingly assumed and fulfilled for years.
MAYBE IT WILL TURN OUT many thousands of dollars spent out of these various funds were spent legally and for legitimate purposes. If so, then what's the harm in having looked into the matter? It might also turn out thousands were spent in a manner contrary to department policy. And it might well turn out some of those dollars from the multiple accounts actually are taxpayers' dollars. Heck, it might even turn out the sheriff's office has a unique undercover operation that involves deputies wearing pageant dresses and collecting information at Burger Kings, Chick-fil-As and hotels in Columbia and Hartsville.
The people charged with managing those dollars work or worked for the taxpayers. They are accountable to the taxpayers, either by virtue of being elected to office or employment by that office.
It never ceases to amaze me - and others throughout the newspaper - people would suggest such matters are none of our business, the public's business. Perhaps corruption in public office and employment circles runs rampant these days simply because there are enough people who would rather ignore what elected and appointed government officials do, at least, that is, until it directly affects them.
Whiting is executive editor of the Index-Journal. Contact him at 943-2522; email firstname.lastname@example.org ,or follow him on Twitter at IJEDITOR. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper's opinion.