Originally created 12/03/01

End the secrecy

Legislators know less about deals the South Carolina Commerce Department makes to lure business and industry than do former employees in other states competing with Carolina.

Commerce's ex-chief of staff, Wayne Sterling, and communications director Beth Braswell left their S.C. posts amid reports Sterling used privately raised funds for golf outings and the like while Braswell steered business to firms that were owned by a friend that employed her husband.

Sterling and Braswell have now taken their skills - and their knowledge of Palmetto State recruiting practices - to Virginia to ply their trade.

What about ethics policies? There are no rules regulating what kind of information a person takes with him, says Jerry Finkle, president of the International Economic Development Council.

The Sterling-Braswell unpleasantness was just the latest in a number of embarrassing, if not corrupt, scandals that the Associated Press and other news organizations recently unearthed.

The reports forced a changing of the guard but, stunningly, Commerce's new director, Jim Morris, hasn't absorbed the lesson. He says the agency will continue its secrecy as it pertains to memos, documents and working papers of how deals are made.

How the agency spends its money will be more open, he says, but the private fund-raising accounts, which got Sterling and Braswell in trouble, will still largely be off limits.

Not good enough says attorney Jay Bender, who often represents newspapers and broadcasters trying to gain access to public information. "(Economic developers) love secrecy and have accepted the notion you can't do business unless it's secret."

He's right. What Morris is offering is scarcely better than what was available before. Finalized industrial-development contracts have always been open to the public - it's the promises and legal arrangements that are not.

It's ludicrous that people like Sterling and Braswell know everything about South Carolina's recruitment deals, and can tell that information to their new clients, but the public knows virtually nothing.

Gov. Jim Hodges has appointed two panels to review Commerce's money handling and secrecy practices. Again, not enough.

Republican Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler and state Sen. John Hawkins, R-Spartanburg, have a better idea. Make the Cabinet agency open all its records to the public, except for matters considered proprietary for firms looking to locate in the state.

That's good advice, not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because Hodges shouldn't want to give Peeler, who has gubernatorial ambitions of his own, such a great issue to beat him over the head with in next year's election campaign.


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