There is "no credible" evidence that Republican leaders interfered with work by other legislators, according to a report.
Sen. Joni Cutler delivered the report by an investigatory subcommittee this morning to the Legislature’s Executive Board.
The report focused on four main allegations that members of House Republican leadership interfered with the work of some legislators and used the Legislative Research Council’s professional staff to pass along private information regarding work by other legislators.
The report said there was “no credible evidence” found on all four counts and the charges caused unwarranted damage to the reputation of legislators and staff. It described any further investigation as “a waste of resources.”
The subcommittee received more than six hours of testimony and statements on Jan. 3 by legislators and LRC staff. The panel’s members were Cutler, R-Sioux Falls; Sen. Tom Nelson, R-Lead; and Rep. Larry Lucas, D-Mission.
Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, and the other five legislators who signed the Dec. 6 letter making the claims didn’t attend the 8 a.m. meeting today.
“We will have no public testimony,” Rep. Chuck Turbiville, R-Deadwood, said as he opened the meeting. He is the Executive Board’s chairman.
Turbiville appointed the investigation subcommittee. Turbiville was one of the four legislators under scrutiny. The others were House Republican leader David Lust of Rapid City; House Republican assistant leader Justin Cronin of Gettysburg; and the speaker of the House, Rep. Val Rausch, R-Big Stone City.
Lucas said the LRC staff should be treated with dignity and respect at all times and that the LRC staff maintain its nonpartisan status as a research council. He said that even as rumors escalated the staff remained neutral and nonpartisan.
Sen. Nelson said Cutler did a professional job chairing the panel. “We as the Executive Board can put this matter to rest today,” he said.
“I think it’s been a very painful and difficult task for all of us,” Cutler said. The unanimous report said unsubstantiated rumors formed the basis for the complaints: “The claims are simply without merit.”
The Executive Board oversees the Legislature’s and staff’s operations during the nine months outside the legislative session.
Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said he followed the events from the onset. A retired law enforcement officer, he said “my investigative antennas were raised” as he heard the comments that were repeatedly based on hearsay from unnamed sources and were nonspecific.
“That to me is a red flag,” Tieszen said.
He said there are three results:
- Legislators’ relationships have been damaged,
- the Legislature’s ability to professionally and politely function has been threatened
- and LRC staff’s ability to function professionally and efficiently must be safeguarded against abuse and misuse.
“I hope we can move forward. We have to move forward. We have a legislative session before us. We really don’t have that option,” Tieszen said.
Rep. Gene Abdallah, R-Sioux Falls, said the panel did “an outstanding job” and the legislators who made the accusations were lucky he wasn’t in charge. “I think everybody should be congratulated for their patience,” he said.
Abdallah, a former U.S. marshal and a former superintendent of the state Highway Patrol, noted that the main accusers weren’t going to attend the investigation hearing and weren’t in the room this morning.
He said Republican legislators “better take further action” if the matter doesn’t end “right now” on the part of the accusers.
Rep. Mark Venner, R-Pierre, sat through the investigation hearing. He said that what he witnessed “in this ordeal” affected him deeply. “I have a lot of questions, and I think I will be more on guard as I move forward on all fronts,” he said.
Venner commended Cutler’s handling of the matter but said the six letter-signers didn’t dream up what happened.
The hearing provided public confirmation for the first time that Lust, Cronin and Rausch held a private meeting with LRC director Jim Fry last session.
“I think we all need to leave here with lessons learned,” Venner said.
Sen. Larry Tidemann, R-Brookings, said a half-dozen legislators aren’t bigger than the institution of the Legislature. “So the process worked,” he said.
Rep. Marc Feinstein, D-Sioux Falls, said the Legislature should treat this as an opportunity to go forward as a stronger institution rather than as a problem.
After a half-hour of discussion, the Executive Board voted 11-0 to accept the report. Turbiville and Rausch abstained, while two members — Sen. Bob Gray, R-Pierre, and Sen. Jim Hundstad, D-Bath — weren’t present.
Turbiville said he hopes the matter is laid to rest and that will be determined in the next few days. He said the report was well done. “Let’s get on,” he said.