Campaign manager Rob Skjonsberg has had an awful time explaining away his boss Mike Rounds's foibles. Now he has to explain his own. The Nation's Lee Fang discovers that Skjonsberg used his position on the state Board of Economic Development to funnel taxpayer dollars to a company he and Rounds have invested in.

In 2012, Skjonsberg formed Lake Sharpe Investments, which invests in new companies. Mike Rounds had over $50K in Lake Sharpe Investments in early 2013. Lake Sharpe has invested in Novita LLC, a company hoping to build a plant near Brookings to produce oil and livestock feed from ethanol processing by-product. (Remember, Skjonsberg worked for Poet Ethanol.) In September 2013, Novita got a $771K grant from the Board of Economic Development. And Skjonsberg, appointed to the Board of Economic Development by Governor Dennis Daugaard in January 2013, voted for that grant.

Read that back: a guy invests in a company. Guy gets on public board. Guy votes to send public dollars to that company. Guy has a conflict of interest, right?

Conflict of interest. No member of the board or the GOED staff may participate in or vote upon a decision of the board concerning an application in which that member has a direct personal or financial interest. [South Dakota Administrative Rule 68:02:09:13].

Skjonsberg turns Republican relativist and says there's just a perception of a conflict of interest:

I am a member of a LLC. That LLC is subsequently invested in a separate fund. That separate investment fund, twice removed, has their own independent management and they make their own investment decisions. I am not fully versed on the investments, now three times removed, made by this separate fund—but nonetheless I’ve come to understand that the perception of a conflict has arisen. I’ve advised both the commissioner and the board chair that I have taken steps to ensure the perceived conflict is avoided in the future [Rob Skjonsberg, in Lee Fang, "Revealed: A New Ethics Scandal Involving the GOP’s South Dakota Senate Candidate," The Nation, 2014.10.23].

John Tsitrian sees through that relativism and challenges Skjonsberg to explain how voting for that grant and two extensions for Novita's construction delays is anything other than a conflict of interest. But we know Skjonsberg's style from the Rounds Senate campaign: he'll probably just ask to change his answer but still expect never to be held accountable for violating the public trust for his personal benefit.

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I have contended that in allowing Joop Bollen to privatize South Dakota's EB-5 program, Mike Rounds sacrificed a key competitive advantage that we had over other private EB-5 regional centers.

Robert Stratmore, head of EB-5 recruiter Darley International, agrees. In his testimony on Day 2 of the Darley v. SDIBI arbitration hearing last April, Stratmore said that the association of our EB-5 agency with the state made it easier to recruit Chinese investors for South Dakota projects:

I actually was quite attracted to the fact that not only was it Northern State University but that it was the state of South Dakota and that would give a leg up for credibility in China that it would be a mandate that was given from the federal government to a state government [Robert Stratmore, transcript, Darley v SDIBI arbitration hearing, 2014.04.29].

EB-5 chief Joop Bollen pressed this advantage even after completely privatizing the EB-5 operation, as indicated by Chinese press material from October 2010.

If we accept Mike Rounds's thesis that EB-5 is a good program, if we accept the idea that raising capital from foreign investors more interested in green cards than business results is healthy, then we should expect state government to run the EB-5 program as competitively as possible. Yet Mike Rounds gave up the official state control of EB-5 that an EB-5 recruiter said would draw more EB-5 money.

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In responses to reporter Bob Mercer's questions about South Dakota's EB-5 program, Mike Rounds downplayed his involvement in the EB-5-promoting South Dakota International Business Institute and his interaction with SDIBI director Joop Bollen:

[Mercer]: EB-5 began for dairy development in South Dakota in 2003. What was your role in that decision?

[Rounds]: I was aware of the desire to expand the federal program beyond dairy development.... I wasn't involved in the transactional details — but I did agree with the concept to create those jobs and diversify South Dakota's economy.

...[Mercer]: Joop Bollen was in charge of EB-5 and dairy development while he was employed at the South Dakota International Business Institute at Northern State University. How did you come to know him?

[Rounds]: I was aware of Mr. Bollen's early efforts to expand dairy development in South Dakota, and I have always been supportive of dairy development in our state. Direct interaction was limited updates on SDIBI's efforts came by way of staff reports [Bob Mercer, "Rounds Answers Reporter's Questions on EB-5 Scandal," Black Hills Pioneer, 2014.10.02].

Once again, Northern State University counsel John Meyer's sworn testimony in the Darley v. SDIBI arbitration contradicts Rounds's claims. On Day 3 of the Darley arbitration hearing, April 30, 2014, Darley attorney Jennifer Elkayam asked Meyer about several letters of agreement between SDIBI and the Governor's Office of Economic Development from 2005 to 2009. These letters laid out the economic development activities, including EB-5 visa investment recruitment and management, that GOED expected SDIBI to perform.

[Elkayam]: Can you explain, to your understanding or if you know, why GOED would not directly engage in these activities that SDIBI is called upon to perform under these letters of agreement?

[Meyer]: Well, I would say, in terms of the history of that office, these functions would have been performed by personnel employed within Tourism and State Development located in Pierre, but what happened was Joop Bollen was loaned under this cost reimbursement structure to GOED, and that's how SDIBI got involved

MS. ELKAYAM: I'm sorry. You said "loaned"?

THE WITNESS: "Loaned."

MR. [Darley Attorney Max] BLECHER: "Loaned."

MS. ELKAYAM: "Loaned" [transcript, Darley v. SDIBI JAMS arbitration hearing, Los Angeles, CA, 2014.04.30, pp. 484–485].

This loan piqued the interest of the arbitrator, the Honorable Robert A. Baines:

[Baines]: ...Who initiated this loaning process? Is it something that started at GOED and came to SDIBI for help, or was it the other way around where SDIBI proposed to the State Department that it would do these functions for a certain amount of money for the State?

[Meyer]: Judge, I don't know firsthand, but I, in my own mind, know what happened. I believe that idea came from the governor of South Dakota.

[Baines]: Okay.

[Meyer]: And I believe, based on a statement that Joop Bollen mentioned to me once, that he had gone down and interviewed with the governor.

I believe that's where that came from. So it would have emanated from the governor through Tourism and State Development and GOED to Northern --
were, in GOED or the State.

[Baines]: Uh-huh [Darley v. SDIBI, 2014.04.30, p. 486].

Uh-huh. Mike Rounds says he was "aware" of the things SDIBI did. John Meyer says Mike Rounds had the idea that sent SDIBI down the EB-5 path. Mike Rounds says he was "aware" of Joop Bollen's efforts but interacted only indirectly, through staff reports. John Meyer says Mike Rounds interviewed Joop Bollen personally in Pierre to get the program going.

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One of the main responses Mike Rounds has offered to revelations of misconduct in the state's EB-5 visa investment program is that he didn't run EB-5; the Board of Regents did.

Testimony under oath from Northern State University counsel John Meyer on April 24, 2014, in a deposition for the Darley v. SDIBI arbitration contradicts Rounds's statements:

[Darley attorney Jennifer Elkayam]: Or what entity provides SDIBI with the authority to conduct foreign direct investment activities?

[Meyer]: In the State of South Dakota, that area is handled and funded through the Governor's Office of Economic Development, which is a subbranch of the South Dakota Department of Tourism and Development [John Meyer, deposition, Darley v. SDIBI, Los Angeles, California, 2014.04.24, p. 23].

Agreements between GOED and NSU authorizing SDIBI's work show budget items from NSU, but Meyer says those items included little cash:

[Elkayam]: Did SDIBI ever receive funding from NSU at any point in time?

[Meyer]: Well, I notice here it mentions a cooperative effort. That cooperative effort was limited on NSU's part. I have observed, in some of the documentation, that NSU's contribution was roughly $100,000 per annum. The remainder of the budget, which would be much larger, would have come directly from "GOED" or GOED. I should also add that the bulk of that $100,000 contribution would be in provision of office space, the general overhead support, utility support, communication support, et cetera. I believe the actual cash infusion from NSU would be negligible [Meyer, 2014.04.24, p. 25].

Bollen testified in his April 16, 2014, deposition in Darley v. SDIBI that he answered to NSU Dean of Business Clyde Arnold but that such answering was generally limited to cc-ing Dean Arnold on monthly updates e-mailed directly to the Governor's Office of Economic Development. Elkayam asks Meyer about the chain of command:

[Elkayam]: Do you know whether Mr. Bollen reported to Dr. Arnold between 2007 and 2009?

[Meyer]: Actually, he reported to the titular head of the Department of Tourism and State Development or GOED, and I believe that position was sort of a two-hatted division of the secretary of that department [Meyer, 2014.04.24, p. 28].

The titular head of GOED during the specified time frame was Richard Benda.

Meyer says any accountability Bollen had to NSU was on minor accounting matters, not the core operations of the EB-5 program or SDIBI in general:

[Elkayam]: Who did Mr. Bollen report to within NSU between 2007 and 2009?

[Meyer]: Well, we're looking at "Operations" down there at the bottom of this current exhibit, and I would have to say that for operational purposes, for those functions, he reported to whoever was the titular head of the Department of State of Tourism and Development or, as I said, who would also be heading the GOED operations.

[Elkayam]: So no one within NSU?

[Meyer]: Not for operations.

[Elkayam]: For any other purpose?

[Meyer]: What -- what would occur is reconciliation of payroll expenditures. For instance, we just looked at this previous exhibit that's identified as 1(8). Obviously there would be some accounting reconciliations concerning his salary, travel, et cetera [Meyer, 2014.04.24, p. 34].

Meyer says Bollen submitted his primary budgets (the accuracy of which Bollen himself called into question in his deposition) and accounting information to GOED:

[Elkayam]: Did he [Bollen] ever submit any type of budgets for approval to anyone within NSU?

[Meyer] I don't believe he did, to my knowledge. I believe he submitted his budget requests and his accounting of expenditures to GOED [Meyer, 2014.04.24, pp. 34–35].

Meyer states under oath that he does not believe Bollen obtained authorization from anyone at NSU or the Board of Regents for his January 2008 SDIBI–SDRC Inc. contract [p. 45]. He says that the functions described in that contract exceeded the parameters of the SDIBI mission statement approved by the Regents in 1994 [p. 48] as well as the operating authority granted to SDIBI by GOED and the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service [p. 51]. Meyer also says that Bollen and SDIBI received no Regental authorization for memoranda of understanding sent to EB-5 investors [pp. 57–58].

Operating thus outside the bounds of granted authority, as exhibited by SDIBI's off-book partnership with the Hanul law firm, prompted a meeting involving  NSU's new president, Dr. James Smith, in 2009:

[Meyer]: ...there was a meeting that occurred at NSU between myself and Dr. Smith and Rich Benda and Joop Bollen and [V.P. finance and administration] Don Ehrlenbusch, and that meeting would have occurred in July of 2009.

[Elkayam]: And what did you talk about at that meeting?

[Meyer]: The -- you know, it's been five years now and the meeting was attended by myself, because I was asked to come, because there was a concern about the -- the employment of Hanul Law Firm. And there was also a concern at NSU about, shall I just say the activities that had been uncovered, and it was prompted by the transition between Dr. Laurie Nichols, who had been an interim president at Northern, and Dr. Smith's arrival, taking over her duties.

[Elkayam]: You said the employment of Hanul. Was that employment by SDIBI of Hanul?

[Meyer]: There was a concern that there had been no employment that any of us were aware of and that there should not have been [Meyer, 2014.04.24, pp. 56].

This July 2009 meeting fits the narrative that emerges from Bollen's deposition that NSU and the Regents may have been trying to shut SDIBI down and that only intervention from Benda and the Governor's Office of Economic Development kept Bollen and EB-5 going.

Meyer concludes that he does not believe that Bollen "was supervised by NSU in the sense that you would expect as an employee" [p. 73].

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Mike Rounds desperately needs you to believe that his office had little to do with the EB-5 program that has endangered his gubernatorial legacy and his Senatorial aspirations. "...[T]he program and the personnel were responsible to the South Dakota Board of Regents," Rounds avers. "...[A]s governor, I was not involved in the day-to-day activities of the BOR program."

But according to EB-5 czar Joop Bollen, the leads for big EB-5 transactions came from the Rounds Administration:

[Regents attorney Chaka Okadigbo]: Okay. In terms of -- for people that don't know how the EB-5 program works, if -- I assume the regional center was involved in selecting projects for foreign investors to review and decide whether to invest in it, is that correct?

[Bollen] I wouldn't say that. I would say that initially we will receive a lead that would come from the governor's office or the department of agricultural that there is a project that the state has an interest in. I would then forward the contact to the entity that we had a working relationship with, and they then would obtain the information directly from the project typically and they would then do the due diligence of the project and decide if their investors want to get involved in that project or not [Joop Bollen, deposition 1, Darley v. SDIBI, 2014.04.16].

Rounds has tried to portray his "direct interaction" with Bollen as "limited" to updates on efforts by Bollen's South Dakota International Business Institute "by way of staff reports." Yet Bollen's testimony shows two-way interaction, with the Rounds Administration providing the leads like Northern Beef Packers necessary to sustain SDIBI's efforts.

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District 28 Senate candidate Rep. Betty Olson (R-Prairie City) earned herself some media attention this week. It seems only fair that we give her opponent in the Senate race, Parade Democrat Oren Lesmeister, a little air time.

Hat, cattle, and mustache—Oren Lesmeister, Democratic candidate for District 28 Senate

Hat, cattle, and mustache—Oren Lesmeister, Democratic candidate for District 28 Senate

Lesmeister runs Fox Ridge Ag Supply in Parade, Dewey County, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation east of Eagle Butte. He also raises wheat, sunflowers, corn and cattle on his patch of the high plains. He spoke to me Thursday from a motel room in Belle Fourche, about 150 miles from home. District 28 covers more territory than any other legislative district in the state: all of Dewey, Ziebach, Corson, Perkins, and Harding counties, most of Butte, and the northeast corner of Meade—14,700 square miles, almost a fifth of South Dakota, with about 3% of the state's population. He drove 235 miles just the preceding evening

That's sparse country to be out rustling up votes, but Lesmeister says campaigning is an "absolute blast," even for a Democrat campaigning in what Betty Olson's representation makes clear is hard right Republican country. Lesmeister reminds us that he comes from the eastern, reservation side of District 28, which leans Democrat. But even on the western side, where he says he gets skunk eye over that D in front of his name "every day," Lesmeister says he has great conversations with very "receptive" voters.

What do they talk about? Education funding comes up. Lesmeister says his school district, Eagle Butte, comes out better than others, since it receives a fair amount of impact aid from the federal government to make up for tribal land that doesn't pay property tax. But he looks around at the sprawling, far-flung school districts of District 28 and sees the state's "broken" funding formula failing to meet their needs. Lesmeister says we need more money for schools, but he's not proposing new taxes. He first wants to look at the hundreds of millions in sales tax exemptions as well as economic development handouts to corporations as sources of revenue to bolster our schools.

Lesmeister does talk taxes with his neighbors, particularly the agriculture productivity tax. In 2008, South Dakota revised its property tax to assess ag land not on the basis of land sale and rental values but an Olympic average (eight years, drop high and low) of crop prices and yields for comparable land. Lesmeister says that taxing ag land based on the corn or hay it could have produced according to past averages of neighbors' activity is like taxing a 40-story building for 200-stories: you could have built a taller skyscraper, so we're going to tax you as if you had!

Replacing that tax methodology is tricky, and Lesmeister wants to have more conversations with experts, but he'd rather return to assessing land on sale and rental value than keep the current system. At least with land sale prices, says Lesmeister, we're dealing with real numbers.

In general, Lesmeister says, the best tax reform would allow everybody to pay less. But he recognizes that we've got to pay for what we need. Nowhere is that tension more apparent than in road funding. He admires the efforts of Senator Mike Vehle (R-20/Mitchell) to find money to improve our roads. He praises Senator Vehle for pushing people to get beyond griping and propose real solutions. Lesmeister says the ugly reality is that federal funding will dwindle and that state and county governments will have to pick up more of the tab for getting from Buffalo to Timber Lake.

Lesmeister says we could take some of the pressure off our highways by expanding railroads. He doesn't favor state ownership, but he would support incentives for private industry to build more rail shipping capacity.

Lesmeister does not support the Keystone XL pipeline. He says laying pipe across South Dakota to ship North American oil out to the global export market doesn't do South Dakota a bit of good. He challenges the assertion that running against Keystone XL will do in Democrats; in his district, the tribes are strongly opposed to the pipeline, and folks in Bison and elsewhere along the Keystone XL route don't say much nice about the pipeline to Lesmeister. (Remember: Betty Olson thinks Keystone XL is just peachy, as do far too many other South Dakota legislators.) At the very least, Lesmeister says we should learn from examples in Wyoming and North Dakota and not let Big Oil walk all over us.

Lesmeister also talks Medicaid expansion with his District 28 neighbors. He says South Dakota will eventually accept the money being offered under the Affordable Care Act to cover low-income South Dakotans. We have to, says Lesmeister, in part to make up for the $14 million he says we'll lose in the coming year as our increasing state income lowers the federal aid we qualify for under existing Medicaid rules.

Lesmeister recognizes the need for economic development in his big corner of the state, on reservation and off. He says the major challenge to creating jobs in District 28 is not lack of workers or skills; contrary to certain prejudgments, Lesmeister says his neighbors on the Cheyenne River Reservation want to work. Simple geography makes it hard to lure businesses: Eagle Butte and Lemmon are a long way to ship inputs and outputs. Economic development needs to focus on improving and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to connect West River businesses to their suppliers and customers. Lesmeister says Northern Beef Packers would have been a great project to build in his neighborhood, given that it could have relied on local supply. (Hmm... EB-5 to benefit the reservations... don't forget that idea!)

I mention women's issues to Lesmeister, and he focuses on legal protections against domestic abuse and sex trafficking, an issue of particular concern for reservations near the proposed Keystone XL construction camps and the man camps of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. He doesn't propose new laws; he says we can protect women sufficiently by stepping up our enforcement of laws already on the books.

As for abortion rights, Lesmeister says he as a legislator should never decide such issues. He says he would resist legislative efforts to further curtail women's reproductive rights. "It's too big of an issue" for the Legislature to decide, says Lesmeister; any abortion legislation should go straight to the ballot so all South Dakotans can vote.

Lesmeister wants to talk about these issues and everything else on voters' minds right through Election Day. He invites his neighbors to give him a shout via his Facebook campaign page and his campaign phone (605-365-6856—yup, he said I could publish that). Ping him, ring him... Oren wants your thoughts and your vote on November 4!

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Friend of the blog Lanny Stricherz offers this guest column to explain that GOP Senate candidate Mike Rounds and Governor Dennis Daugaard own a record of economic development failure and corruption much larger than the EB-5 scandal.

*   *   *

We had a chance to remove the Rounds–Daugaard team from South Dakota politics during the primary in June, but passed on that opportunity. So now we are faced with the option of doing so in November. Will we take that opportunity this time, or are we still going to give them a pass on their utter disregard for the citizens of South Dakota?

The list of failed economic development projects, which wasted our tax dollars, goes much further than the EB-5 Northern Beef Packers bankruptcy, which cost more than a 160 million dollars, as well as more than 400 jobs lost. Among the failed economic development projects in which these two Governors invested state dollars and state employee working hours, are:

  1. CAFO dairy operations, two of which went bankrupt and at least one of which employed illegal immigrants not locals for the jobs as mandated by EB-5, and the others continue to pollute our lakes and streams, and only hurt the small dairy farmers in our state.
  2. The Big Stone II coal burner power plant, which after being fought for by our governor for years, was dumped by Minnesota's PUC as damaging the air and water surrounding it.
  3. The Basin Electric coal burning power plant in Selby failed for the same reason.
  4. The Keystone Pipeline, environmentally damaging, and bleeding 38 million dollars from South Dakota taxpayers.
  5. The Keystone XL pipeline which was originally approved by the Public Utilities Commission, but whose permits from South Dakota have now expired. This was caused by the delays in approval because of awareness of its potential to damage the Ogallala aquifer, the largest aquifer in the US and which serves the southwestern quarter of our state.
  6. Anderson Seeds, which cheated South Dakota farmers out of millions of dollars when it went bankrupt.
  7. The Hyperion oil refinery and coal burning power plant which the Governor was promoting as the Gorilla Project for a couple of years.
  8. South Dakota Children's Home Society, which siphoned off millions of taxpayer dollars while Dennis Daugaard was Lieutenant Governor and still employed by SDCH, in no-bid contracts and in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
  9. Another no-bid contract of 5 million dollars to Manpower to recruit 1000 new employees in 3 years. It only got 83 in the first year.
  10. State funding of a jobs training program, which trains workers at area vo-techs. Many of the welders trained at Mitchell then fled the State to work in North Dakota in the oil fields at double the pay. (Jobs training used to be and in most cases is the responsibility of the employer, certainly not government.)

While All of this waste was/is happening Governor Rounds cut education funding 5%, and then after not answering questions about education funding during the 2010 campaign, Dennis Daugaard cut it by 6 1/2% in the 2011 legislative session. Now, Governor Daugaard is turning down tens if not hundreds of millions of federal dollars by not expanding medicaid to cover those who are working but make too much to be below the poverty level but not enough to get a subsidy to purchase their own health insurance, simply because he is opposed to Obamacare which his friend Mike Rounds helped establish.

Speaking to the Pennington County Republican Ambassadors Luncheon on the day after the 2010 election, Dennis Daugaard is quoted by Kevin Woster in the Rapid City Journal, "In their hearts, South Dakotans usually do what's right," he said. "And they don't need the government to tell them what's right."

Including Mike Rounds there are four choices for US Senator. Including Dennis Daugaard, there are three choices for Governor.

Let's hope that the voters do what is right on November 4th.

—Lanny Stricherz, guest column, submitted 2014.10.05

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Mike Rounds gave an interview to the Rapid City Journal this week that reinforces the GOP narrative of using the departed Richard Benda as fall guy for any further corruption we may uncover in the Governor's Office of Economic Development and of covering up remaining witnesses who could spill the beans.

Mike Rounds has been happy to put on his sad face and cloak himself in sympathy for Benda's family. But he gives Benda himself the cold shoulder in his current media stance:

The two men met in the 1980s and crossed paths several times afterward, Rounds said, but were not “socially active together” [Seth Tupper, "Rounds: No Prior 'Red Flags' about Benda," Rapid City Journal, 2014.09.24].

Rounds distances himself from the decision to put Benda in charge of state economic development in 2006, saying that everybody else was telling him to hire Benda. And then Rounds adds this new shred of personal, petty gossip to insult his former GOED chief:

Benda committed suicide with a shotgun in rural Lake Andes during the opening weekend of the 2013 pheasant hunting season, days ahead of the annual Governor’s Hunt. Rounds thinks the timing was significant.

“The next week was the Governor’s Pheasant Hunt. Rich was actively involved in that, and my understanding is that he was not going to be invited to be able to hunt,” Rounds said. “I think his world was closing in around him, and I think the fact he was aware he was going to be indicted, I think he decided that his world was collapsing around him, and he didn’t see a way out” [Tupper, 2014.09.24].

On hearsay, Rounds is willing to paint Benda as a lonely, isolated, hopeless man. Compare that with his willingness to draw conclusions from the much firmer, public, documentary evidence suggesting his EB-5 director Joop Bollen committed crimes:

Rounds was asked Wednesday why he has not singled out Bollen for criticism.

“What I know is what I’ve learned from the attorney general’s reports,” Rounds said. “What I know for sure is that the attorney general had the opportunity to look at this for close to a year. He closed his file last year. To the best of my knowledge, I’m not aware of any action he’s taken against Joop Bollen, and so I don’t have anything that tells me that Mr. Bollen has been found guilty of doing anything illegal.”

When asked how he would describe Bollen’s actions if not “illegal,” Rounds said he’s not the right person to ask.

“I have questions about it. I would’ve had questions then if I had known about it then,” he said. “The appropriate place where that should be answered is at the Board of Regents level. He was their employee” [Tupper, 2014.09.24].

Richard Benda is not here to respond to Mike Rounds's character assassination. Joop Bollen and his Republican power-broker lawyer Jeff Sveen are. Mike Rounds understands quite clearly who his "friends" are.

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