Monthly Archives: January 2017

Legislators seek special prosecutor for recovering losses from EB-5, Gear Up

Eight legislators — six Republicans and two Democrats — have put their names on the line with a resolution calling for the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor in the EB-5 and Gear Up scandals.

Prime sponsor of SCR 8 is Sen. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City. His Senate co-sponsors are State Nelson, R-Fulton; Craig Kennedy, D-Yankton; and Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs. Kennedy and Russell are lawyers. (Kennedy, if memory is accurate, handled a high-profile state government case as a special prosecutor more than 20 years.) In the House the lead sponsor is Thomas Brunner, R-Nisland. Other House co-sponsors are Dan Ahlers, D-Dell Rapids; Blaine “Chip” Campbell, R-Rapid City; and Julie Frye-Mueller, R-Rapid City.

The resolution isn’t binding on the attorney general if it passes, but it would be a message about the sense of the Legislature. It specifically asks the special prosecutor “to prosecute, both civilly and criminally, all losses that the South Dakota taxpayers have sustained as a result of the above-mentioned scandals.” The resolution is assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committee for its first hearing. A date hasn’t been set. None of the senators whose names are on the resolution serve on the committee.

Haggar, Novstrup suggest public hearings on ballot measures

The controversy over various ballot measures in recent years has sparked discussion of how to improve the process. One set of ideas comes from Rep. Don Haggar, R-Sioux Falls, and Sen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, in legislation they filed Thursday. The title of HB 1130 is a fair description of their proposal. They want to “provide transparency and public comment for ballot measures and amendments to the Constitution.”

They are seeking these changes:

A 30-day public comment period for registered voters in South Dakota before the secretary of state allows the signature-gathering process to begin;

A second 30-day public comment period for registered South Dakota voters after the petition is filed with the secretary of state;

Two rounds of public hearings that would be held by the Legislature’s Executive Board. One hearing would precede the petition’s circulation for signatures. The second hearing would occur at least 120 days before election day; and

A log on the secretary of state’s website for each ballot measure showing the full text, any financial contributions made in support or in opposition and the comments made by South Dakota voters.

HB 1130 was assigned to the House State Affairs Committee for its first hearing. The date hasn’t been set yet.

House co-sponsors, all Republicans, include Thomas Brunner of Nisland, Spencer Gosch of Glenham, Sean McPherson of Rapid City, House Republican assistant leader Kent Peterson of Salem, Sue Peterson of Sioux Falls, House Republican leader Lee Qualm of Platte, Larry Rhoden of Union Center and Tim Rounds of Pierre.

Senate co-sponsors, all Republicans, include Novstrup, Bob Ewing of Spearfish, Brock Greenfield of Clark, Senate Republican assistant leader Ryan Maher of Isabel and John Wiik of Big Stone City.

Greenfield is Senate president pro tem, the Senate’s top member.

Senate GOP calls time-out on IM 22 fight

Informal conversations with Republican senators in the past 24 hours indicated their caucus isn’t quite of single mind yet on HB 1069, the legislation that would overturn voters’ will on IM 22. The hang-up is the two-thirds majority of 24 that is necessary. HB 1069 contains an emergency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature. An emergency clause requires a two-thirds majority. On Thursday afternoon, Senate Republicans decided to invoke the 5-17 rule that allows debate to be interrupted for a day. That means 1069 won’t come back up for debate until Wednesday afternoon. The delay also gives the 29 Republicans more time to pull together their replacement plan.

Pressure is building among the public that citizens expected election and corruption reforms when they approved IM 22 in the November election and they want those expectations fulfilled. Right now there isn’t a clear path for Republicans to take, with various ethics commission proposals and campaign finance proposals coming from different lawmakers, and from the two chambers, and the secretary of state. Some of the proposals evidently haven’t been cleared through the secretary of state because they contain technical flaws. There also is confusion about what ethics would fall under the various proposals. A hodge podge might be the most accurate description of the situation at this point.

Will Legislature overrule voters more often in future?

The South Dakota Legislature’s Republicans, after losing the November election fight over Initiated Measure 22, sued to get the anti-corruption act stopped by Circuit Judge Mark Barnett in December. Now in January they’re taking up HB 1069 this afternoon (Tuesday) to repeal its provisions, including the public funding of legislative and statewide office campaigns. Meanwhile in the Senate this afternoon SB 59 is scheduled for debate.

SB 59 has merit in some ways because it would change the effective date to the following July 1 for constitutional amendments, referenda and initiatives; they currently take effect after the official statewide canvass of votes is complete in November. The down side to the July 1 approach is the Legislature meets between the elections and July 1, giving lawmakers a clear opportunity to consider legislation to nullify or amend something passed by voters, as they are doing in the House with HB 1069.

Nothing in state law or the state constitution prohibits what the Republicans are doing on IM 22. However, because its provisions are on hold by order by Judge Barnett, and the case is being appealed to the South Dakota Supreme Court, the legislators might have waited for the justices to decide the matters at stake. Instead, the Republicans are slapping the “unconstitutional” tag on IM 22 — and some of it might be — but only the justices have the authority to make that final declaration.

If voters turn against Republican candidates in 2018, the treatment of voters in the IM 22 saga might be a big reason. It’s been surprising how many Republican legislators have been able to read voters’ minds and declare the voters didn’t know what they were doing when they passed IM 22. If there is a scientific survey that supports it, the Republicans would have information on their side. In the meantime, we’re left with ESP.

UPDATE: The Senate approved SB 59. The House approved HB 1069. The Senate has already posted HB 1069 for committee hearing at 10 a.m. CT Wednesday, Jan. 25. The train keeps rolling.

Where I’ve been lately

I returned to work on a part-time basis today (Monday, January 23, 2017) as a trial run. I’ve been on medical leave since an episode Dec. 8. I won’t bore you with details, but I suffered a combination of blood clots and a shutdown of my kidneys while initially my doctors were focused on growths found in my brain after I passed out during a court hearing that I was covering. The clots are handled, the kidneys seem to be back to nearly normal and the brain growths are to be considered at a later date this winter. My hope is to return to full-time work ASAP once I have the medical green light.

I can’t say thanks strongly enough to the many people who sent well wishes through cards, emails, phone messages, texts and newspaper columns. Some good souls voluntarily took care of the walks and driveway at our house while I was laid flat in the hospital those too many weeks. Lots of people helped Ellen, including her supervisor and co-workers and friends. Some generous old friends took up collections (we’re OK on that front however). Our children did all they could. I owe my life to the Avera doctors and nurses and rehab therapists and other medical staff in Pierre and Sioux Falls. I owe the most to Ellen for being there constantly. And I owe God more than a bit for giving me a chance at life number three. Now I’m nearly late for an appointment so I’ll cut this short.

Guest column: Bob Mercer’s important role in Pierre

This guest column was written by Noel Hamiel, a retired editor and publisher of numerous South Dakota newspapers, including Yankton and Mitchell newspapers. He also served in the state Legislature. Hamiel lives near Reliance.

Journalism: Writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation. — Merriam Webster Dictionary

In the newspaper world, editors look for reporters and writers.

Reporters can spot a news story from across town, and dig out the important details before press time. The best ones ask questions no one else thinks of asking, and get printable answers instead of “no comment.”

Writers, on the other hand, can produce prose like F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Hemingway if you prefer, pulling readers into some stories they otherwise would have little interest in reading. As with your junior high crush, you are involved in the story before you really know what happened.

Which brings me to Bob Mercer, one of the best journalists I’ve seen in all my years of newspapering.

Bob digs for information when others have decided it was time to go home. The clock meant nothing to Bob when he was after a story he believed was important to his readers. Years ago, when the Board of Regents was quietly planning to add a new university to the state system, Bob dug out the facts. More recently, if you wanted reliable updates on the EB-5 program or the Mid-Central Educational Co-op scandal, you turned to Mercer in your daily newspaper.

Bob felt so strongly about the public’s right to details about the EB-5 program that he sued to access the death investigation file of Richard Benda, a principal player in the story. The judge ruled against him, and Bob, acting as his own attorney, later said he was trying to make a point about the difficulty, and expense, of obtaining information that he believed was in the public’s interest.

Bob could write, as well as report. In 2002, he approached me and the publisher of the Watertown Public Opinion, Mark Roby, about starting a one-person news bureau. He wondered if some South Dakota dailies would be interested in hiring him. Bob had finished his time as press secretary for Gov. Bill Janklow, and some questioned if he could be fair in his reporting after that political service.

With The Associated Press cutting back, Bob’s idea was timely and attractive. There was another reason, as well. Bob’s long history of objective reporting prior to the press secretary job made the case all by itself. I figured his years in government service only expanded his knowledge of an important news beat.

And then there was a comment Janklow made to me years before. “I had to hire Mercer,” he told me, “to get him out of the press corps.” He made the comment only partially in jest. He recognized Bob’s abilities, and his intellectual candlepower.

You have not seen Bob Mercer’s stories for awhile. He is, as they say, severely under the weather. He will not cover this session of the Legislature, and that is a major loss for South Dakotans who try to stay informed.

Bob, we need you to get well and get back to what you do best: reporting and writing the news.