COLUMBIA, S.C. — For the second time this week, Richland County Council member Joe Walker sent a letter questioning the Council's behavior in recent years.
In a letter sent Wednesday morning, Walker addresses Cherry Bekaert, LLP, an accounting firm, about the penny tax audit.
"I am hereby formally requesting its immediate and full release to the public," Walker wrote in the letter.
Walker claims that when he reviewed the 2017 Audit of the Richland PDT he had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
"I request all findings, including those born to council under cover of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) be released and expanded upon in their entirety," Walker continued.
The council member also asked the legality of being forced to sign an NDA to examine the document.
"As indicated when presented with the mandate by County Attorney Larry Smith to sign this NDA in exchange for this information, I question the validity of forcing an elected public official to maintain confidentiality as it pertains to the results of a publicly funded audit on a public tax program," Walker wrote.
Walker spoke to WLTX in an interview on Wednesday afternoon.
"Hence my call for transparency, I believe that if we create a more transparent culture at the County level specific to this program, that the facts would come to light," Walker said in his office.
Attorney General Alan Wilson and US Attorney Sherri Lydon are copied on the letter.
"I believe this audit and the associated mandate for secrecy fall squarely into those questionable activities and have provided [AG] copy of this letter as a supplement to my initial request for investigation," Walker stated in the new letter.
In his letter, Walker claims he cannot discuss what he saw in the audit because of the NDA.
"Although I obviously cannot speak to the results themselves, I am keenly aware of the public's perspective that no one keeps good news a secret for this long," Walker wrote.
He repeated that in his office Wednesday afternoon.
"I appreciate you asking, and I feel like it's my obligation to tell you. But, given that I signed a nondisclosure agreement, until an attorney reviews and tells me otherwise, I intend to abide by the terms of the nondisclosure agreement, even though I adamantly disagree with it as suggested in my letter," Walker said.
A 13-page audit report for 2017 is posted to the County's website and features Cherry Bekaert letterhead. It's unclear if that document is the same one council members reviewed under the NDA.
"If for some reason the full release of this information is not provided within the next ten business days, I have concerned constituents prepared to lever the courts to compel this result," read a portion of Walker's letter.
Two Midlands attorneys said the NDA could be challenged in a court setting.
"The nondisclosure agreement just has no place under these circumstances," said attorney Desa Ballard.
Ballard has been practicing law for 35 years and has handled many Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) cases. She said the audit should be public record.
"Unless for some reason it's not in final form, but the public has a right to know what happens with its money, and of course, as a member of the governing body, a county council member has a right to know what the results of any audit of public funds are," Ballard continued in a phone call Wednesday afternoon.
USC law professor Joseph Seiner, focusing in workplace law, said nondisclosure agreements are becoming increasingly difficult to enforce.
"NDA's are generally not liked in the courts across employers, let alone public sectors, because it's restricting information, it's holding an employee to certain conduct after they leave the employer," Seiner explained at the law school.
In an email late Wednesday afternoon, a Richland County spokesperson said the County administration, "generally does not comment on attorney-client matters," and noted the county attorney does not report to the administrator.
The spokesperson also said County Council Chair Paul Livingston could not be reached.