South Carolina millionaire, citizen watchdog dies at age 91
GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) – Edward “Ned” Sloan Jr., a millionaire businessman who fought in South Carolina courts for years for the rights of citizens to learn what state and local public officials did with power and taxpayers’ money, has died at 91.
A Citadel graduate and longtime Greenville businessman, Sloan’s passion for holding officials accountable led him to hire a lawyer and set up a foundation that filed lawsuits to pierce veils of government secrecy erected by some of the state’s most powerful public officials.
Often using the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, Sloan’s lawsuits – which he frequently but not always won – shone light into government’s darkest corners, exposing slush funds, secret government spending on politicians’ pet projects and questionable uses of power at local and state levels.
Sloan’s targets included current S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who recently awarded a questionable $75 million fee to his old law firm for purported legal work, and former Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, who used his power to secretly steer millions in taxpayer money and government services to his pet project, the restoration of once sunken Confederate submarine, the Hunley.
At the time of his death, on Oct. 27, Sloan was mounting a legal challenge to Clemson University’s practice of giving lifetime appointments to certain members of its board of trustees.
“We lost a warrior,” said Joe Taylor, chairman of Sloan’s S.C. Public Interest Foundation, a former S.C. Department of Commerce secretary and Columbia investor.
“He had an amazing ability to see the difference between right and wrong, and he was a champion of the little guy,” Taylor said. “He had a sense of responsibility to make sure everybody played by the rules, because when you play by the rules, good things happen.”
Jay Bender, South Carolina’s foremost FOI lawyer, said, “Ned was a hero. He was a guy who believed in open government and backed his beliefs with his wallet.”
“Fortunately, he had the resources and a great lawyer in Jim Carpenter. They did a wonderful job in bringing public bodies to heel,” Bender said.
Carpenter, the Greenville lawyer who did most of Sloan’s legal work, recalled his longtime client.
“He didn’t just sit around and gripe about things. He took action, put his own money into it, took criticism and heat for it, made enemies, but he did what he thought was right,” Carpenter said.
Over some 20 years, Carpenter filed more than 100 lawsuits for Sloan, arguing them in trial courts and on numerous occasions in the S.C. Supreme Court.
An obituary noted that Sloan and his foundation, the S.C. Public Interest Foundation, had sued, among others: the South Carolina General Assembly, the governor, Budget and Control Board, Board of Health and Environmental Control, Department of Transportation, and Greenville County, the city of Greenville, the Greenville Hospital System, Clemson University and school districts. The disputes’ target were as varied as procurement practices, ownership of non-tidal submerged land, payment of fees to a witness subpoenaed by the state, use of public funds for private purposes, government debt limit, dual office holding and numerous other matters.
What made Sloan tick?
Carpenter said that as a longtime successful paving contractor, Sloan got a close-up look at how government insiders worked on bond issues and other largely non-public dynamics involving the spending of public money and became convinced that government needed to be more transparent.
“If he saw something illegal, we would file a lawsuit,” Carpenter said.
Sloan had a sense of humor. His obituary noted he was “a lapsed Episcopalian and a lapsed Republican.”
When he received a check for legal expenses from a government body that lost one of his lawsuits, he would take a photo of it and post it on his wall. “He said it was like the old farmer who tacks a skunk hide on his barn wall as a trophy,” chuckled Carpenter.
Sloan was called many things: a watchdog, crusader, citizen activist, a David who took on Goliath.
But he was proudest of being called a “gadfly,” an age-old term originally used to describe one of the West’s most famous philosophers, Socrates, who was condemned to death around 400 BC by the rulers of Athens for asking questions.
Proud of the nickname, Sloan wore a gadfly lapel pin.
He was tough.
Asked in a 2004 interview with Columbia’s Free Times if he had ever been threatened or told to back off, Sloan replied, “Suit me fine to get threatened. I think I can defend myself.”
‘THE COURT’S FAVORITE GADFLY’
Sloan’s victories in the state Supreme Court and other courts benefited citizens in longtime ways, lawyers said.
▪ In a case involving secret spending by the Friends of the Hunley, a foundation that was given millions in public funds by a public body called the Hunley Commission, the Friends of the Hunley at first refused Sloan’s FOI request to turn over financial records to Sloan and Carpenter.
Sloan sued. After the lawsuit, the Friends of the Hunley finally turned over the records but refused to pay the court costs of the FOI lawsuit, saying it had given up the records. After numerous appeals, the foundation paid some of Sloan’s legal expenses.
But Sloan had established a precedent: that if a citizen is forced to hire a lawyer and file a Freedom of Information lawsuit to get public records, and the public body only releases records after a lawsuit is filed, the public body will have to pay court costs up to the time the records are released.
“That was a great lesson for public bodies – that they couldn’t just ignore requests for information until they got sued, then turn over the information and say, ‘Okay, you got your records, now go away,’ ” Bender said.
Sloan’s work also:
▪ Firmly established in the modern era the principle that in certain cases of public importance, ordinary citizens have “standing,” or the right to file a lawsuit against public officials or government agencies. Ordinarily, to bring a lawsuit, a party has to establish a direct financial or other interest in the dispute at hand.
In a decision involving citizen-brought case which the S.C. Supreme Court rejected Gov. Henry McMaster’s effort to give $32 million in federal public funds to private schools, the high court cited two Sloan-initiated lawsuits on standing and said the citizen who sued McMaster had the right to sue.
“The standing cases were important, because they opened the door for other people to stand up and say, ‘This officer is doing this illegally,’ or ‘This action is unconstitutional,’ ” said Carpenter. “Sloan’s cases get cited in virtually every case in which public interest standing arises.”
▪ Got “bobtailing” – the practice of attaching unpopular legislation to popular bills the Legislature passes – declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. Bills that become laws are only supposed to deal with one subject area.
▪ Made the S.C. Department of Transportation adhere to a law that said members of its governing commissioners could serve no more than one consecutive term. That state Supreme Court decision resulted in the removal of three of DOT’s commissioners.
▪ Forced the S.C. Department of Revenue to adhere to the specific timelines set out in the Freedom of Information Act that require public agencies to respond to requests for information or be sued. The DOR had claimed, essentially, that once it told a citizen it would release records, it then had unlimited time to turn over the documents, Carpenter said. “We won attorney’s fees on that all the way up to the Supreme Court.”
Carpenter estimated that over the years Sloan spent at least several million dollars bankrolling lawsuits.
Sloan became such a regular in the state Supreme Court that sometimes, at the beginning of one of his hearings, former Chief Justice Jean Toal would spot Sloan in the audience and say, “Well, we’d like to welcome the court’s favorite gadfly, Mr. Sloan,” Carpenter recalled.
In his last years, Sloan grew deaf but he kept up a steady stream of lawsuits.
In 2008, an editorial writer with the Charleston Post & Courier made an observation that has stood the test of time. “There is no other private citizen who has personally invested as much as Greenville’s Edward Sloan to make officials at all levels of South Carolina government follow the law.”
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Published at Sun, 08 Nov 2020 05:01:10 +0000