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OUR VIEW: Appoint panel to investigate Benda affair

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Members of the Democratic Party are calling for an independent investigation into the suicide of former tourism and state development secretary Richard Benda and some of his business dealings during and after his time in state government.

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Benda was found dead in a rural South Dakota field near Lake Andes in October. He died from a shotgun blast to the abdomen, and authorities have declared it a suicide.

In the weeks since Benda died, it’s been revealed that a state government office he led and a beef packing plant he helped get built in Aberdeen have been under investigation for improper or illegal activity since before his death.

For example, it appears Benda improperly received about $5,500 after he turned in duplicate receipts for travel during his time in state government. More disturbing is the $550,000 diversion of a state government grant from its intended recipient, Northern Beef Packers, to the South Dakota Regional Center, for which Benda served as loan monitor of the Northern Beef Packers project after he left state government.

In a release to media this week, state Rep. Kathy Tyler, D-Big Stone City, called for a special session of the state Legislature to appropriate funds for an independent review of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and its involvement with a federal investor-immigration program and Northern Beef Packers, which opened in 2012 but closed after only a few months of business and declared bankruptcy.

Tyler said the special review should be granted to “restore the public’s trust in state government.”

We don’t believe the public has lost all trust in state government, but we do believe the circumstances surrounding Benda’s death, his apparent theft of state funds, and his dealings with Northern Beef have lessened the public’s trust in government and do warrant a closer look.

We suggest appointment of a bipartisan panel by the governor — in addition to but independent of the ongoing state and federal investigations — to thoroughly investigate Benda’s death, his conduct regarding the Northern Beef Packers plant both during and after his employment with the state, and any and all related issues. When the investigation is over, a public report should be issued. Benda may be dead, but the public deserves to know what, exactly, he may have done and who else may have been involved.

Because most of the players in this saga are Republicans, there is an appearance of a conflict of interest, and an appearance is all it takes to poison the well. With the trustworthiness of a portion of our state government now openly called into question, we as taxpaying citizens of South Dakota deserve an independent investigation to help root out whatever corruption may exist. And the rooting can’t be done by somebody on the inside.

Let’s find out exactly what happened and who was to blame, and then let’s fix what needs fixing in our state government and get this mess behind us.

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