HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – A Cornell Law student has accused the Horry County Government of violating South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act.
The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that “any person has a right to inspect or copy any public record of a public body… as to make it possible for citizens… to learn and report fully the activities of their public officials at a minimum cost… to the persons seeking access to public documents.”
Emily Christianson filed the lawsuit against Horry County on Thursday, claiming she was asked to pay “an exorbitant cost” to have access to electronic public records of homicides in Horry County.
Christianson said that in January she visited the Horry County Clerks office to informally request that public records be pulled and scanned. Heather Lewis, the Horry County Clerk of Court office manager, told Christianson the records were already scanned, available online and that she would email the scanned documents to Christianson, according to the lawsuit.
But later that day, Lewis emailed Christianson and told her the request would have to go through the FOIA office. When asked why, Christianson was told it was because personal information on the documents would have to be redacted before shared, the lawsuit states.
Christianson says in the lawsuit that she sent in a FOIA request, asking for public records for homicide cases, including warrants, sentencing sheets/dispositions and indictments and only requested the documents that were available electronically.
According to the lawsuit, Kelly Brosky, an administrative assistant for the Office of Public Information in Horry County, responded to Christianson’s request and stated in part that “the cost of complying with the request would be approximately $2,125 (not including copies).” The email further requested a deposit of $531.25 to be submitted before the office search and make copies of the records.
Christianson replied and asked how the office calculated the estimate cost for the requests. According to the lawsuit, Brosky replied that “the fees assessed are in compliance with the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.”
Christianson asked for an itemized list of reasons and further stated that she was using the documents in the request for educational purposes and included that she was acting on behalf of a law school class and professors.
Brosky replied, “as previous stated, the fees assessed are in compliance with the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act,” according to the lawsuit.
Christianson submitted a second FOIA request for the same public records and specified that she only requested electronic versions of the document.
The lawsuit states that Brosky replied to the second FOIA request and said the cost of complying with the request would be $25. Christianson paid the $25 and Brosky sent the requested records.
Within the requested records was an email from Brosky to Lewis asking to estimate the staff time it would take to compile the records that Christianson requested, the lawsuit states. Lewis replied that it would take one week to complete the request and would cost somewhere between $1,500-$2,000, according to court documents.
Christianson alleges that the Horry County Government violated FOIA by charging fees that exceed the actual cost of “search, retrieval and redaction of records.”
“The resulting cost of $2,125 for the request indicates that the request would take 85 hours to complete, based on the fee schedule posted online states that the fees would be assessed with a $25 per hour rate,” according to the lawsuit.
Christian says this time is exorbitant for two reasons: Lewis said in an email it would take a week to fulfill the request, which is 40 hours, and also back in January, Lewis told Christianson the documents she requested could be retrieved in a day.
The lawsuit states that the lack of transparency from the Horry County Government violates the purpose of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.
“The lack of transparency between the Horry County office and the public is antithetical to the purpose of the South Carolina statute and the idea of free information from the government. When Plaintiff asked for a detailed explanation of how Defendant came to the cost of the FOIA request, Defendant replied opaquely that ‘the fees assessed are in compliance with the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.’”
Christianson is asking for an injunction requiring Horry County to produce the public records she requested and waive all fees associated with the search and production of public records.
WMBF News reached out to Horry County and asked about the allegations made against the government in the lawsuit. Kelly Moore, the spokesperson for the county, said it is county policy to not comment on pending litigation.