“It certainly raises an eyebrow,” Summer said. “As a matter of fact, Wilson was on a bus tour promoting transparency in government on the very day that I was issued a subpoena by his lawyer.”

Lou Ann Anderson, a journalist in Texas who founded estateofdenial.com in 2007 to document probate cases in the courts, told CJR that the Brown case looks particularly bad on the state. “The idea that assets appear to be being diverted from intended beneficiaries and have been rediverted to unintended parties or outside parties, i.e. the lawyers—that happens regularly. The fact that this is all being orchestrated by a state government—that is unusual,” Anderson said.

“This AG office appears to be helping to finance a certain number of lawyers who are then going out and hiring private practice lawyers to pursue this. We say ‘appears,’ because with them being unwilling to comply with these FOI requests, we can’t know. They really are looking to have their cake and eat it. They don’t want to comply with this, but at the same time they’re targeting this reporter, wanting her to give up her rights,” Anderson said.

The Newberry Observer is not offering Summer legal counsel at this time. She is being represented by the South Carolina Press Association. Summer, the only journalist in South Carolina reporting on the case, fears that weakened regional newsrooms mean fewer resources are available to keep state governments in check.

“After a year, after seeing the violations of the Freedom Of Information Act, after seeing what they’ve tried to do to the Shield Law, the one thing that I am convinced of at this point is that the traditional watchdog of the FOIA has always been newspapers,” Summer said. “But we are now in such a weakened position, I don’t know that we can fulfill that function as well as we did in the past, and I’m concerned about that. There was a time when I would have been fighting to get a little piece of this story.”

Summer’s lawyer has issued a letter stating that she is protected from the subpoena under the Shield Law, which gives reporters the right to refuse to testify. They have not had any response. Summer said she will continue to report on the case.


 

Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield.