Beaufort News

Judge to rule in secret plaintiff case

HiltonHead

A Beaufort County judge is expected to decide no later than Tuesday whether The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette are entitled to an unredacted copy of an internal investigation into citizen complaints against a former Beaufort County sheriff’s deputy.

Beaufort County Special Circuit Court Judge Marvin Dukes, who previously ruled that the newspapers could receive only certain portions of the report, heard arguments for reconsideration Monday afternoon as to whether the full, unredacted report should be made available under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

Monday’s hearing is the latest in a legal fight between the newspaper and an anonymous party seeking to block the release of the Sheriff’s Office investigation report involving allegations made by Hilton Head Island residents Chris O’Nan and Karen Anderson that a deputy used his police vehicle and equipment to facilitate “an adulterous relationship” and abused his position by running a license place check on an individual without cause.

Staff Sgt. DeJuan Holmes resigned when confronted with the accusations. Through FOIA, the public and media are allowed access to documents produced by law enforcement agencies, towns and other taxpayer-supported offices. The openness allows the public to assess the performance of the agencies it funds. Occasionally, the agency from which the information is sought will try to fight the release of information. This case is rare because the opposition to the release of information came from an unnamed third party and not one of the agencies involved — the Sheriff’s Office and Beaufort County.

The anonymous plaintiff’s attorney, Kimberly Smith, argued Monday that the newspaper’s FOIA request was made specifically as an inquiry into Holmes’ alleged misconduct. Since references to Holmes were left in the report provided to the newspapers, the request was fulfilled despite the redactions regarding other parties allegedly involved with Holmes’ activities, she said.

Smith said portions of the report contain “baseless allegations” that could be damaging to her client’s children.

During Monday’s hearing, Carl Muller, a Greenville-based attorney representing the newspapers, challenged the standing and anonymity of the third-party plaintiff and said, “The strongest argument for reconsideration (of Duke’s decision) is that the Sheriff’s Office and the county did not object to the release of this information.”

Beaufort County Attorney Tom Keaveny, who was present at Monday’s reconsideration hearing, said county officials “believed the material (in investigation report) needed to be released under FOIA.”

At the end of Monday’s hearing, Dukes said he recognizes that the anonymous plaintiff “has their reputation on the line” and reconsidering the newspapers’ request for the unredacted investigation report “is certainly a tough call.”

Dukes said he likely will make a decision on the case by Tuesday afternoon.

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