Corrupt government thrives on secrecy. The more it conceals, the more dishonest - or at least lazy - it can be. Looked at from the other side, the governments that best serve the people are almost always the most transparent as well.
We've said this before and we'll say it again: Government exists to serve the public. It is the public. And so government information belongs to the public. Government officials are not the owners of the information, merely the custodians.
All of which explains why a bill gaining significant support in South Carolina is worrisome. The bill would let police, sheriffs and prosecutors keep secret any "information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or criminal prosecution."
It's not clear exactly what that includes. It is clear that law enforcement officials would have more discretion to keep secret information that is now made public. That's moving in the wrong direction.
Jay Bender, a veteran Columbia lawyer who represents The State newspaper and other media organizations, told The State's John Monk that the bill "goes a long way in creating a secret police operation in South Carolina."
He added: "If you want to have police corruption, just let them operate in secret. A fundamental concept of democracy is for the public to know what's going on and to be in charge."
We're not convinced that the bill would clear the way for a "secret police operation." But it would shift the burden under the law. The public would have to go to court to argue that certain information should be made public, rather than law enforcement officials having to make it public unless they can convince a judge that it should not be. That's wrong.
It appears the S.C. bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester, could keep information from the public even after it has been shared with the defendant and his lawyers. But since the defendant would already have it, it's not clear how public disclosure could hurt law enforcement's case.
Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs' Association, suggested the bill might not be needed, Monk reported. "What we withhold now is generally what we need to withhold," Moore said.
We've seen a similar lack of transparency in Charlotte. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is secretive. Most recently, for example, it has been reluctant to reveal how it is spending up to $50 million in preparation for the Democratic National Convention. That should be public record, as it is with the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Police obviously work with sensitive information, and the laws rightly allow them to keep some of that private. But the law should require them to be open in most circumstances, and South Carolina appears to be moving the wrong way.