Press "Enter" to skip to content

Six Republican Legislators: GOP Leadership Corrupting Legislative Process

Last updated on 2014.09.13

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.


  1. Stace Nelson 2011.12.10

    Mr. "H," you have stated the problem perfectly.

  2. Donald Pay 2011.12.10

    Breeches of ethics at LRC have been extremely rare, but they have occurred in the past. During the nuclear waste fight in the early 80s, an LRC staffer in charge of writing legislation on the issue was seeking employment at the nuclear waste firm that would benefit from South Dakota becoming a host state for low level radioactive waste.

    I have a lot of respect for the LRC staff, and have a hard time believing that they could have corrupted the process, but it should be investigated. I do think that any investigation should go farther, however. Some rightwing legislators have been carting in model legislation from various corporate funded national organizations (ALEC being one), dressing them up and not listening to the advise of staff. The tie between ALEC and corporate payoffs or donations to certain legislators needs to be investigated.

    HB 1088 was one such bill. Another was the anti-global warming bill of a few sessions ago. When you have legislators carrying the bills of out-of-state interests, it leads to concern on the part of other legislators that valuable legislative staff time is being taken up for no good reason, and perhaps just to enrich a legislator.

    I would hope that all of this could receive open discussion and a thorough investigation. You want professional staff behaving professionally, but you also want those staff working for South Dakota, not out-of-state interests.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.11

    Complicated, but worth considering! Is there a rule that allows us to prohibit a connection between sources of legislation and contributions from candidates who propose them? Such an arrangement strikes me as the sort of connection we could assert in the blogs and use to create negative press in a campaign but could never pin down as a legally or legislatively actionable offense.

  4. Donald Pay 2011.12.11

    If I'm not mistaken, Cory, you have pointed out that the bill tolling regulations on uranium mining was sponsored by a legislator whose family would benefit financially from uranium mining. It seems this sort of petty corruption could be reduced through commonsense disclosure and recusal rules.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.11

    Correct, Donald! Lance Russell's SB 158 is a good example of the kind of conflict of interest we could more diligently investigate, punish, and prevent. I'd like to whack ALEC's influence, too, but ALEC seems like a harder monster to block than Russell's uranium profiteering. To address the ALEC situation you mentioned, it seems we'd need a rule like, "You can't accept campaign contributions from a group that advocates legislation you propose"... which doesn't seem workable. How can we challenge ALEC with House rules?

  6. Ryan 2011.12.11

    ALEC doesnt contribute to any campaign and the model legislation comes from ALEC. Private sector members sit on committees but that is where the association stops. It's well over arms length if a private sector member arranges a contribution to a legislator especially since no model legislation would exclusively benefit a contributor.
    You are aware that a good number of democrats also are members? Former minority leader Dale Hargens really liked ALEC!

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.11

    Sure, Ryan, and the Tea Party includes some Democrats... who need to get their heads on straight and get the heck out!

  8. Donald Pay 2011.12.11


    I realize ALEC doesn't contribute to campaigns, and it may appear that the contributions are "arms length." Really, it's out and out buying of influence. Some can be bought off by stroking their egos, so cash doesn't need to be exchanged. I guess these people are to be pitied, but they aren't doing anything illegal. Others use ALEC to rake in money, sprinkle it around to others and climb into leadership positions. Some of these petty crooks (Noem) even end up in Congress.

  9. Ed Randazzo 2011.12.11

    Cory, Your article is spot-on correct. The integrity of the LRC is essential and we should expect nothing less than a full investigation and report with serious consequences for those found culpable.
    I think this is the first time we have been on the same side of an issue.

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.11

    Actually, Ed, our positions have somewhat aligned on Noem's support for farm subsidies and the forced resignation of Huron's police chief. Our agreement on issues is apparently not completely impossible... and on the issue of the GOP leadership's abuse of power, we definitely need to agree and keep the pressure on our leaders. I'll bring my questions to Turbiville's crackerbarrels; you got Lust?

  11. Ed Randazzo 2011.12.11

    I stand corrected on the issues you mentioned.
    Couldn't agree more on pressing for answers and keeping the pressure on the Republican leadership, especially Lust.

  12. Stace Nelson 2011.12.12

    Every GOP House legislator was made aware of this problem in August.

    When the full extent of the misconduct is disclosed, the unethical & possible criminal actions of a few in House GOP leadership will embarrass and shame Republicans across the state.

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.12

    But Rep. Nelson, your colleague Mr. Turbiville said on statewide television that he hadn't heard any indication of such monkey business until last week. Does Mr. Turbiville not read his mail outside of session?

Comments are closed.