Yesterday I discussed the political angles of a letter from six legislators accusing the GOP House leadership of using the Legislative Research Council to snoop on its own members. Today, let's look at the more important issue of what those legislators are saying actually happened.

KELO's Ben Dunsmoor does a good job of laying out the details. Most importantly, he posts the letter itself. The first paragraph succinctly lays out the charge:

It has been reported to legislators that during the 2011 SD Legislative Session instructions were given, and heeded, instructing LRC staff members to disclose confidential conversations and materials regarding legislation research between legislators and the LRC staff, to members of the House of Representatives leadership [Letter from Reps. Lance Russell, Stace Nelson, Lora Hubbel, and Betty Olson and Senators Tim Begalka and Ryan Maher to Legislative Research Council director Jim Fry, 2011.12.06].

Our legislators do not have personal staff to help them research and write legislation. They have to trust the Legislative Research Council, a staff shared by all 105 legislators, to do this vital brainwork to put together reasonable, workable bills. When legislators are working on controversial proposals, they deserve some intellectual privacy. They deserve to be able to seek good information and advice to revise and refine their proposals into the form they think best. They deserve to be able to investigate the possibilities for a bill, to look at the research and the draft legislation that the LRC helps them develop, and then to decide whether that bill is worth publicizing and proposing. With no staff under their own direct and exclusive control, legislators must trust the LRC to keep their confidence.

I'm all for open government, but I will concede that forcing legislators to reveal their ideas for legislation before they have fully developed and formally proposed those ideas gives political opponents an unfair advantage. We have a clearly defined public democratic process. You want to beat a bill? You use that process of proposal, committee, and floor debate to beat it, so we can all see (and participate!) what happens.

The LRC, in keeping the confidence of all 105 legislators, protects that democratic process. Allowing certain legislators to violate that confidence and gain privileged access to other members' legislative research and proposals subverts that democratic process.

Rep. Charles Turbiville, R-31/Deadwood

Rep. Charles Turbiville, R-31/Deadwood

Rep. Lance Russell tells Ben Dunsmoor that this violation of LRC confidentiality "did occur." Five legislators are willing to back him up with their signatures. Legislators seem to be notoriously bad at keeping secrets from themselves. Yet Rep. Charles Turbiville, chairman of the Legislature's executive board, which oversees the LRC, looks blinkingly into the KELO cameras and says that not only does he doubt the charge but that "There's never been an indication of anything I've heard or seen so we will look into it and make that determination at a later date."

Never an indication of anything amiss with confidentiality in the LRC that he oversees, when six other legislators from his own party are willing to say there was? Was Rep. Turbiville asleep at the switch, or is he covering for his party leaders?

Rep. Turbiville turns a fine phrase to Megan Luther, telling her that Reps. Russell, Nelson, et al. are asking to violate the very LRC confidentiality about which they are expressing concern. That line is quite clever of Rep. Turbiville, who's pretty good at making half-baked excuses for not sharing information he thinks could hurt the boss.

But fellow executive board member Senator Maher (the sixth signer of the letter) doesn't think this request violates the LRC's confidentiality. Senator Maher is likely right: that confidentiality exists to protect legislators while they are in the process of researching and crafting bills to propose. Once those bills are public, that confidentiality is no longer needed. LRC-legislator communications become discoverable items in future legal proceedings to help the courts ascertain legislative intent. Those communications should be discoverable items to help determine whether party leaders violated LRC confidentiality prior to the introduction of legislation.

Confidentiality, the integrity of the Legislative Research Council, and the sanctity of the democratic process: that's what's really at stake here. If the accusations from Russell, Nelson, Hubbel, Olson, Begalka, and Maher have substance, the South Dakota House GOP leadership should face some serious housecleaning.