Allegations of spying at Legislature might be resolved after long hearingPIERRE — The investigation into allegations of spying and obstruction by some members of the Legislature came to a surprising conclusion Tuesday evening.
By: Bob Mercer, Republic Capitol Bureau
PIERRE — The investigation into allegations of spying and obstruction by some members of the Legislature came to a surprising conclusion Tuesday evening.
House Republican leader David Lust, a Rapid City lawyer, sat down and publicly apologized for his comments during a private meeting last winter about the work product of the Legislative Research Council, the nonpartisan professional staff.
Specifically mentioned was Reuben Bezpaletz, the senior lawyer who’s been at LRC since 1972.
Lust told the three legislators on the investigation panel that “a well-intentioned discussion” mushroomed into something that wasn’t intended. He said that in his zeal to look out for legislators and the process he might have stepped on toes.
“I should have been more sensitive to that,” he said.
Lust then stood, turned and hugged Bezpaletz with several loud man-claps on the back.
What appeared to be the truth ultimately came out after more than six hours of testimony and statements from nine legislators and three LRC members, including Bezpaletz.
The private meeting occurred in Lust’s Capitol office during the 2011 legislative session. It involved LRC director Jim Fry and the trio of Lust, House Republican assistant leader Justin Cronin of Gettysburg, and Rep. Val Rausch, R-Big Stone City, the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Through months of subsequent re-tellings and hearsay, rumors had built that House Republican leaders had ordered LRC staff to tell them in advance about legislation while it was still in the drafting stage before it becomes publicly available.
On Dec. 6, a group of six legislators led by Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, and Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, signed a letter to the LRC seeking e-mails and other records involving Lust, Cronin, Rausch and LRC staff.
Those records fall under specific exemptions in South Dakota’s open-records law that was passed in 2009, according to Sen. Joni Cutler, R-Sioux Falls, who chaired the investigation panel. She said legislators could release the information, but they couldn’t be compelled to do so.
After receiving the Dec. 6 letter, Rep. Chuck Turbiville, R-Deadwood, the chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board that oversees the LRC, responded in a letter of his own on Dec. 15 by asking the six letter-signers for specific evidence.
Turbiville also appointed a three-person subcommittee to investigate the matter. Serving with Cutler were Sen. Tom Nelson, R-Lead, and Rep. Larry Lucas, D-Mission.
No specific evidence was received. Lucas said the testimony showed that a meeting was held, as alleged, but the purpose was to help legislators rather than impede or spy on them.
“I guess I feel good about that,” Lucas said. “We’re looking for evidence, and I don’t see anything here that warrants further investigation.”
Cutler said the panel will deliver a report on the proceeding to the Executive Board at its next meeting Tuesday.
“A lot more discussions possibly may be happening,” Sen. Nelson said.
Russell’s testimony near the end of Tuesday’s long proceedings set the stage for Lust’s confession.
Russell recalled going to the LRC offices early one morning last winter, probably Feb. 2, to meet with Bezpaletz to discuss an amendment on one of his pieces of legislation.
As Russell waited in a chair a few doors away, he heard loud voices from the office of Bezpaletz and saw LRC director Fry and another LRC lawyer exit.
When he went in, Russell said his impression was that Bezpaletz’s performance had been questioned and Bezpaletz didn’t have a normal expression.
“His face was red. He looked to be a little bit beside himself,” Russell said.
Bezpaletz was called repeatedly to the witness stand Tuesday and filled in the rest of the story during his final appearance.
He confirmed the general outline of Russell’s account and said that Lust had made an error in judgment but hadn’t done it again.
“I may have overreacted a little bit,” Bezpaletz said about his meeting with Fry.
Rep. Stace Nelson had been pursuing the issue for months with Lust, according to testimony from the two men Tuesday.
Lust, Cronin, Rausch, Fry and Bezpaletz all denied there was any confidential information passed or pressure exerted regarding other legislators’ drafts.
Rep. Stace Nelson has been engaged in a much broader dispute on several matters with various House leadership members.
Russell confirmed that he authored the initial draft of the letter, including the third and fourth paragraphs of the final version. Stace Nelson confirmed writing the rest of the letter.
Bezpaletz repeatedly disputed Stace Nelson’s versions of events involving the two men, although he said Nelson remained “a good friend.”
Rep. Lora Hubbel, R-Sioux Falls, told the investigatory committee that she signed the letter because she hoped to get information about why a legislative committee voted 13-0 to kill her legislation declaring President Obama’s federal health-care law to be null in South Dakota.
Three other legislators who signed the letter said they didn’t have any direct knowledge or evidence regarding the letter’s allegations.
They were Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, who briefly testified; and Sen. Tim Begalka, R-Clear Lake, and Rep. Betty Olson, R-Prairie City, both of whom sent letters.
Lust, Cronin and Rausch said the meeting with Fry was to discuss the need for LRC to provide better advice to legislators about their choices of topics for legislation, especially on matters of constitutional questions, and about several specific bills.
Lust and Cronin in their testimony said the discussion specifically included references to death threats reportedly received by a legislator about a justifiable homicide measure.
Fry and Bezpaletz said they’d never heard about death threats prior to that testimony. Bezpaletz worked on the legislation.
One of Lust’s concerns was a 2010 legislative resolution on the topic of global warming that included a reference to astrology. The resolution was passed and the Legislature briefly became the butt of jokes nationally.
Bezpaletz said the draft version referred to astronomical but somehow astrological was inserted instead. “It is an embarrassment,” he said.
Bezpaletz said he’d been involved in such mistakes more than once: “In 42 years, exactly three times.”