Bland, Keown

Tim Keown, president of S.C. Governor’s School for Agriculture at John de la Howe, speaks during a Sept. 10 board meeting while chairperson Hugh Bland listens.

South Carolina’s fledgling governor’s school says it is prepared to turn over a new batch of documents at the request of Greenwood’s paper of record.

The estimated cost? $750.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request filed March 30, the Index-Journal sought a six-month span of maintenance requests pertaining to mold or sanitation problems as well as emails John de la Howe President Tim Keown and Scott Mims, who is acting as head of facilities, sent or received about such matters. It also requested text messages and emails exchanged between Mims and cleaning staff for a three-month span as well as procurement documents associated with a single vendor.

A day after it was required to respond under FOIA, the South Carolina Governor’s School for Agriculture at John de la Howe said the request will take 30 hours to fulfill at a cost of $25 per hour, for a total of $750.

FOIA clearly lays out its purpose: “The General Assembly finds that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy. Toward this end, provisions of this chapter must be construed so as to make it possible for citizens, or their representatives, to learn and report fully the activities of their public officials at a minimum cost or delay to the persons seeking access to public documents or meetings.”

But while the act, which was initially crafted in the post-Watergate era, provides deadlines to ensure compliance, public bodies can use the public records law as a cudgel to slow or prevent the release of unsavory information, taking every available moment before responding or releasing information, and at times charging exorbitant rates for gathering information. And the only recourse when agencies run afoul of the law is potentially costly litigation.

To understand why it would take so long — something that could be used in narrowing the scope of a request — the Index-Journal asked John de la Howe if it could provide a breakdown by item of the anticipated time it would take to fulfill the request.

The newspaper noted to the agency that its recent FOIA request to Clemson University, which used broader search terms and sought emails from a span of more than two years, produced nearly 2,000 pages of emails. The university estimated the request would take 11.5 hours to complete at a cost of $514 and did not update the cost or time estimate when the request was fulfilled.

The publication also noted that John de la Howe used an outside contractor for past search and retrievals, the cost of which can’t be passed along to a requester under FOIA.

Still, the taxpayer-funded agency would not say how it determined the request would take 30 hours to complete and stood firm on the $750 charge to access these public records.

‘Big dog’ on campus

At the center of the latest FOIA response from John de la Howe is its newly minted public information officer, Tony Baughman.

Baughman, part of the many Edgefield-connected employees to filter into the agency in recent years, is quick to boast of his 35-year career as an award-winning newspaper and radio journalist.

He certainly gained notoriety within the profession. As editor of the Twin-City News in Batesburg-Leesville in 2019, he excoriated a council member for sending a letter to the editor to one of his subordinates instead of him.

Conservative-leaning news organization FITSNews posted a lengthy phone message Baughman left the council member, which included the then-editor saying: “You are playing with a big dog, and you don’t want to (expletive) with me.” The council member called police, but no charges were filed.

Baughman told FITSNews he suspended himself for two days over the episode and said it happened because the council member provoked him.

Now Baughman, who also serves as resident adviser and lives among the students, acts as FOIA officer and handles media requests. He’s been quick to bash the Index-Journal in conversations and email exchanges with the newspaper, even publicly attacking it on social media after publishing a press release he sent in the Lakelands Connector, a weekly product included in the Wednesday Index-Journal and also freely distributed across the coverage area.

While lauding the Connector and sharing a photo of it, he wrote Friday that “its parent publication likes to pretend it’s a real newspaper by hauling out poorly-crafted, poorly-sourced, borderline unethical ‘journalism’ (in giant air quotes).”

Keown liked the post.

Baughman was so incensed after the first paragraph of a story referenced the 13-day wait for information about a public vote by the board that he sent a 1,135-word email during Easter weekend lambasting the Index-Journal for what he saw as tilted writing and accusing the newsroom of worshipping The Post and Courier’s Tony Bartelme, who Baughman noted was a four-time Pulitzer finalist.

“I am not going to sit idly by while you and your staff (or anyone in the media) slay a goat at the feet of the great god Tony Bartleme (sic) and dance naked around some perverse journalistic Stonehenge at our expense. We will not be your sacrificial lamb for some misplaced journalistic glory-grab,” he wrote.

After acknowledging that the 357-word story was accurate, he concluded that the Index-Journal should be ashamed of Saturday’s story.

In a follow-up email, he said: “I am hopeful that we can have a productive and at least cordial professional relationship moving forward.”

Last Thursday, when the Index-Journal told Baughman that John de la Howe was a day beyond the 10-day deadline laid out in law to respond to the newspaper’s FOIA request, Baughman wrote it off as an “oversight” and said “the nature of FOIA is to prevent corruption, not to create legal distractions to a very new and young agency attempting to repair and remediate decades of not-so-benign neglect.”

Video request denied

While John de la Howe said it would fulfill much of the request once the Index-Journal paid a 25% deposit, it denied one part: video from security cameras.

Looking into concerns raised about employee and contractor behavior, the newspaper requested surveillance footage from the front and back entrances to campus as well as outside something called “the hotel” in Shiflet Hall, which can serve as rental rooms for nightly stays.

The agency pointed to part of the law that says “Information relating to security plans and devices proposed, adopted, installed, or utilized by a public body, other than amounts expended for adoption, implementation, or installation of these plans and devices, is required to be closed to the public and is not considered to be made open to the public under the provisions of this act.”

While acknowledging that this exemption has never been tested in court, press attorney Taylor Smith thought this misapplied the law.

“This exclusion is to show that bad actors cannot learn about the security plan and the devices used (even proposed or adopted, but not yet installed) so as to figure out how to subvert them. A sound public policy. The images and audio produced by such a device do not compromise the security plan or device — unless somehow they are hidden cameras, I guess. Assuming the security cameras can be seen by the person captured on it, the security plan/approach is not compromised,” he said.

The school also asserted that releasing video might violate student privacy, pointing to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Smith said cameras in public places don’t pose a privacy concern and certainly don’t constitute “scholastic records” protected by FERPA.

On a website about student privacy issues, the U.S. Department of Education explains that FERPA applies to video when it is “directly related to a student,” such as when video is used as part of disciplinary action. However, the law would not protect video “if the student’s image is incidental or captured only as part of the background, or if a student is shown participating in school activities that are open to the public and without a specific focus on any individual.”

The Index-Journal shared Smith’s reasoning and the Department of Education-run webpage with John de la Howe on Monday but had not received a response as of Tuesday afternoon.

While the agency has asserted FERPA to prevent the release of this video, it might have violated the law last year.

During a June 2021 board meeting, Principal Gregory Thompson updated the board of trustees on the grades made by students — what percentage of students passed end-of-course exams, for example.

He also directly named four students, telling the board what grade those students made on certain tests.

“To give you a few little individual highlights from that,” Thompson began, going on to name the students and give the exact numerical scores of three of them.

Grades and test scores of individual students are protected education records under FERPA and should not be publicly disclosed without prior written consent of parents.

The Index-Journal noted this in an email to the agency Monday. As of Tuesday afternoon, it received no response.

Index-Journal staff writer Lindsey Hodges contributed to this report.

Contact Managing Editor Matthew Hensley at 864-943-2529 or on Twitter @IJMattHensley.