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Politics

$160K Bill That Includes Winery Tours? Charleston Paper Helps Small Town Reporters Investigate Public Officials

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The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, has launched an investigative project called “Uncovered.” It examines the conduct of government officials. One of the reporters on that project is Tony Bartelme. He joined WFAE’s Marshall Terry

Marshall Terry: Tony, as part of the "Uncovered" series, the story that caught our eye centers on the spending behind trips taken by gas officials from Chester, Lancaster and York counties. Who were these officials?

Tony Bartelme: These folks were executives and board members of something that's called a gas authority, which is a state agency that provides natural gas to folks mainly in rural areas of South Carolina, especially in the York, Lancaster and Chester County areas.

Terry: So what kinds of trips were they taking?

Bartelme: As part of their responsibilities, they took these very expensive trips to places like Portland (Oregon) and San Francisco and Stowe, Vermont, where they spent tens of thousands of dollars on everything from glassblowing lessons to pricey dinners and bars.

Terry: So they were there, at least ostensibly, on official business. What kind of official business?

Bartelme: Well, they call it "training trips," where they would meet with industry executives and try to learn about the latest trends in the industry that they are responsible for. However, there was plenty of time for golf, plenty of time for tours and lots of extracurricular activities.

Terry: And you also report that in some cases they brought their spouses along with them?

Bartelme: They did. Most of the time they brought their wives and, in some cases, some of their children, and they socialize together all on the ratepayers' dime.

Terry: How much did these expenses add up to?

Bartelme: Some trips, for instance, cost more than $160,000. The York, Chester and Lancaster gas authorities flew to Portland in 2018, and they took their wives or husbands along. They went on winery tours and tours of the Columbia River Gorge, and and that cost $160,000 just for that one conference.

Terry: This "Uncovered" project is described as one way to serve what are called news deserts. So how does that work exactly?

Bartelme: Well, I think the unique twist of this "Uncovered" project was the recognition that we're losing a lot of our local newspapers — our community papers, our longtime community watchdogs with reporters who went to the city council meetings and really kept an eye on their public officials. But with all the budget cuts that are happening and all the changes in the industry, we've lost these important watchdogs. Our goal with this "Uncovered" project was to team up with these reporters and support them, leverage their knowledge of their communities with our ability to really dig in deep and look through documents and uncover the hidden stories that are so, so difficult and expensive to uncover.

Terry: Do you have a sense that there's a correlation between a community lacking a local paper, as you're describing, and the actions of elected officials?

Bartelme: So there's been a little bit of research on this that shows the communities that lose their papers tend to have more expensive bond referendums. And that kind of makes sense, right? You know, people behave differently when they're not being watched and we're seeing that real effect on taxpayers.

Terry: Do you know if your reporting has had any impact in Chester, Lancaster or York counties, or anywhere else in South Carolina where the "Uncovered" project has reported so far?

Bartelme: Well, as soon as we did our initial report, the governor called for ethics reform. And there were some efforts by state lawmakers, including some from the York-Lancaster area. They filed some bills and they're working their way through the legislature in a typically slow process. I think some of the best examples of impact we've seen have been agencies that canceled some of their conferences or just made these comments that, "Oh, we're not going to go to the Grove Park in Asheville and spend thousands of dollars" and kind of laugh about it. But the reason I love that is that they know they're being watched.

Terry: You said that there have been some ethics reform bills that had been filed in the state legislature in South Carolina. What would those bills do?

Bartelme: So those bills would take a look at some of the exemptions that special purpose districts have when it comes to reporting the gifts that they get, some of the expenses they get. So there are some loopholes that the special purpose districts, such as the gas authorities, have that allow them to operate with a little less scrutiny.

Terry: Have you heard anything specific from officials in Chester, Lancaster and York counties about your reporting?

Bartelme: Absolutely. We asked them why they spent so much money and why they took their wives and why they felt the need to take all these glassblowing lessons and things like that. And they said these meetings are purely educational, it's all about team building and that it was "standard procedure" to have alcohol for these events and that know the expenses were relatively miniscule, even though they actually ended up being in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.

Terry: What's ahead for the "Uncovered" project?

Bartelme: We've been teaming up with lots of local newspapers and we've exposed some stuff, really across the state, that had been neglected. So, we're going to continue to do that, and we've got about 50 tips that we're looking at right now.

Terry: Thank you for joining us.

Bartelme: Great to be with you.

Tony Bartelme is a journalist working on the "Uncovered" project out of the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.

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