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.