Conflict questions arise during recountRadio newsman, mayoral candidate take part in process.
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
Ethical questions arose Thursday at the Davison County Courthouse in Mitchell when two men with ties to Tuesday’s election participated on recount-related boards.
Billy Lurken, news director for KMIT radio in Mitchell, was covering the recount process Thursday morning for the radio station when the need arose for a resolution board.
A resolution board examines ballots that a vote-counting machine can’t process, possibly because of marks that are difficult for the machine to read. The members of the resolution board examine the machine-rejected ballots and decide to reject or accept them, and also determine the voter’s intent if the ballot is accepted.
While the recount was in progress, Auditor Susan Kiepke emerged from her office, where the ballots were being counted, and sought volunteers for the resolution board from among a roomful of candidates, journalists and others who were gathered to wait for the results.
Kiepke said she needed a Democrat and a Republican for the board, and Lurken identified himself as a Democrat and volunteered. Sue Wermers, a deputy auditor, served as the Republican on the board. It did not appear that the political registration of either one was ever verified.
Lurken, when questioned by The Daily Republic, said he didn’t consider it a conflict of interest or think it would impact his coverage of the event.
“No, I think it’s more interesting,” he said.
The board reviewed six ballots for irregularities, keeping and determining voter intent on five ballots and throwing out one.
Kevin Smith, the ethics committee chair with the Society of Professional Journalists, called Lurken’s decision to serve on the board a conflict of interest.
“I think that’s pretty much a nobrainer,” Smith said in a phone interview with The Daily Republic. “He should have respectfully declined and told them it would create a conflict of interest.”
Smith said the SPJ receives about 300 calls and e-mails per year, and 70 percent of them deal with conflict of interest questions regarding media professionals involved with politics and government agencies.
Questions also arose about a member of the county canvassing board, John Claggett, who was on Tuesday’s ballot as a mayoral candidate and is a Davison County commissioner.
South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant said it was legal for Claggett to serve on the canvassing board, even though Claggett’s name was on the ballot for mayor and the results of the election were in question following errors that were discovered Wednesday.
“The law is very clear,” Gant said.
The only people in the state who lawfully cannot canvass their own votes are the secretary of state and the governor, Gant said. He did add, however, that Claggett was free to recuse himself if he perceived a conflict.
“State law doesn’t say he can’t be on (the board), and nothing is forcing him to serve on there,” Gant said. “He can recuse himself.”
During the day, Claggett said at least twice that he felt as long as he didn’t enter the Auditor’s Office, where the votes were being counted, he would not be doing anything improper. Claggett finished fourth in the six-way mayor’s race, both in Tuesday’s count and Thursday’s.