Statehouse Republicans feud over staff confidentialitySix lawmakers file written complaint alleging legislative leaders ordered their staff to breach long-held confidentiality on legislation being researched and drafted.
By: Bob Mercer, Republic Capitol Bureau
PIERRE — The chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board said Wednesday he isn’t brushing aside allegations from six Republican state lawmakers who claim the Legislature’s nonpartisan professional staff violated legislators’ confidentiality during the 2011 session.
But Rep. Chuck Turbiville, RDeadwood, says he needs to see evidence from them first. He said he sent a letter to the six on Monday.
“Once I have this information, I will (meet) with the rest of the Executive Committee of the Executive Board to determine our next step,” he told them in his written response.
The Executive Board oversees the Legislature’s administration during the nine months when the Legislature isn’t in regular session. The two other members of the board’s executive committee are Republican Sen. Joni Cutler of Sioux Falls, who is the vice chairman, and Democratic Rep. Larry Lucas of Mission.
Turbiville is asking the six legislators to provide specific details regarding their allegations. He said he needs dates, times, nature of the requests, and the names of legislators and the names of Legislative Research Council staff allegedly involved, as well as a list of legislation the six think was compromised and the reasons why.
The six legislators who signed the letter of complaint — Rep. Lance Russell of Hot Springs, Rep. Stace Nelson of Fulton, Rep. Lora Hubbel of Sioux Falls, Rep. Betty Olson of Prairie City, Sen. Ryan Maher of Isabel and Sen. Tim Begalka of Clear Lake — delivered it through Nelson to Turbiville on Dec. 6, the day of the governor’s budget speech.
The six claim in their letter that LRC staff members were directed to share information about some of their legislation with the House of Representatives leadership.
Their letter doesn’t provide any details but specifically mentions the names of House Speaker Val Rausch, R-Big Stone City; House Republican leader David Lust of Rapid City; and Legislative Research Council director Jim Fry.
The six want the LRC to release files, correspondence and e-mails. But Turbiville said that request must be denied because turning over that information to them would be in violation of legislators’ confidentiality.
“However, I do not take your request and complaint lightly and will address this issue in a timely manner, but first I will need additional information from you,” Turbiville said in his letter to them.
Nelson said Wednesday he hasn’t received Turbiville’s response yet.
“After we actually receive a letter, we will consider an appropriate response. Of curious note, such a decision would be made by the E-Board in public, not by a single member without LRC consultation,” Nelson said in an email Wednesday replying to a reporter’s questions.
Rausch said Wednesday he isn’t prepared at this time to talk publicly about the matter. Lust said he thinks the issue should be handled privately within the House Republican caucus.
Lust said he purposely isn’t going on the record with reporters about the allegations.
“I’m trying to not feed the media frenzy,” he said Wednesday night. “I’m purposely steering clear of it and letting the E-Board process play itself out.”
Regardless of whether Turbiville’s board acts, House rules allow a formal motion to be made in writing by any two House members who seek appointment of a special committee to investigate a legislator.
If that written motion receives a second, the elected members of the House can vote on whether to proceed with the committee. The six legislators haven’t indicated yet whether they might take that path next.
The special investigatory committee’s nine members would be appointed by the House speaker, with no more than five from the same political party, and with the chairman and vice chairman coming from different political parties.
The committee’s investigatory powers allow for witnesses to be called and subpoenas to be issued. The legislator being investigated can personally present a defense or use a lawyer and can call witnesses and provide other evidence.
The committee’s final report can include recommendations of expulsion, censure, discipline or exoneration. The House members would vote on the final action.
The various sides are working under an assumption that confidentiality is required of LRC staff.
However, there are no state laws, legislative rules or written policies to that effect, according to LRC director Fry and Sen. Cutler.
“It (confidentiality) has simply been the policy for so long that apparently no one felt it needed to be expressed in written form,” Fry said Wednesday.
He said he didn’t have a copy of Turbiville’s letter at the LRC office.
Lust indicated he didn’t know there wasn’t a written policy and said there didn’t need to be one. “It’s common sense. It should be held confidential,” he said.
Rep. Nelson alleges he was told by an LRC staff member that the staff member was directed to disclose to leadership information about items that three Sioux Falls Republicans — Hubbel, Rep. Hal Wick and Rep. Manny Steele — were working on.
Nelson also claims he was told that a meeting took place in January, early in the session, involving Lust, Rausch, House Republican assistant leader Justin Cronin of Gettysburg and Fry.
Nelson alleges that Fry was directed at that meeting to have LRC staff inform leadership about matters which other legislators were working on with LRC staff.
Nelson said he spoke to Lust in July about the matter and followed up with an email to all House Republicans. He said the topic was further discussed at the House Republicans’ closed-door caucus in October.