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Gant gets money from firms he hired

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PIERRE -- Public records show a political action committee operated by Secretary of State Jason Gant accepted $17,500 last year from two companies that performed services for his office.

Gant's political action committee, Committed to Victory, received $7,500 from BPro, a Pierre-based technology services firm.

The committee also received $10,000 from an Omaha, Neb., company called Government Systems, Software and Services Inc.

Those payments were made for access to participate in a pheasanthunting event that Gant hosted for other secretaries of state.

Gant's acceptance of the contributions from the two companies was criticized Monday by Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party.

Nesselhuf lost to Gant in the 2010 election for secretary of state.

"There were only two contributions to his PAC last year and they were both the companies that have the largest contracts with the secretary of state office," Nesselhuf said.

Gant's PAC appeared to have more than $12,500 left over after covering expenses for the hunt.

BPro president Brandon Campea said he participated after receiving an invitation. He said helping to underwrite the event allowed him to interact with the visiting officials.

Campea said he probably would have spent as much or more if he had made individual trips to their states.

"It was a good opportunity for me, businesswise. I'd probably do it again," Campea said.

BPro provides election technology services to six states -- Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Vermont -- as well as 10 counties in Minnesota and Sacramento County in California.

Campea took over the company in 2009.

BPro was paid more than $630,000 by South Dakota's state government for services delivered under various contracts during the 2010 through 2012 budget years.

Much of that activity occurred under contracts with the secretary of state office under Gant or the previous secretary of state, Chris Nelson. Gant took office in January 2011.

Elections Systems and Software, a company with the same Omaha address as GSSS, received nearly $32,000 from state government during 2011 and 2012.

One of the company's specialties is electronic voting, involving the use of computer-linked voter-registration books that allow for the use of voting centers that replace precinct halls.

The approach has been a priority for Gant since his time as a state senator.

Mike Hoversten, a regional sales manager for the company, lobbied during the 2012 legislative session on a measure Gant sought for expansion of the electronic poll books and voting-centers approach.

Gant hadn't responded to a request for comment as of the time this story was written.

His PAC's 2011 finance report showed operational expenses of $4,943.88 but doesn't specify how that money was spent.

A pheasant hunt doesn't appear in the report's details.

Donations in 2011 were made to two candidates totaling $250 and three other PACs totaling $750.

The 2012 general-election report for Gant's PAC hasn't been filed yet, so it's unknown whether more money has been received. None was received through the May preprimary reporting deadline.

State records don't show any campaign contributions from vendors to Nelson's campaign fund for secretary of state during its 10 years of existence.

Nelson closed that account and opened a new one to support his current candidacy for state Public Utilities Commission.

The $125 donations made by Gant's PAC in 2011 were to Nelson and Kristie Fiegen, another Republican running for election to the PUC.

Gant established the Committed to Victory committee in July 2010. Its stated purpose was "to elect Republican candidates."

The PAC received $11,600 in contributions prior to the 2010 general election, including $10,000 from Janet Cronin, of Gettysburg. She is the mother of Rep. Justin Cronin, R-Gettysburg.

Most of the money eventually was shifted to Gant's campaign account for secretary of state.

By routing the money through his PAC, Gant was able to legally accept a much larger amount than the $4,000 maximum which state law allowed from an individual giver in a single calendar year.

The PAC's acceptance of donations from the two businesses in 2011 was another way to get around state bans against companies giving money directly to candidates.

BPro was paid $222,109 by state government for services in fiscal 2010 while Nelson was still secretary of state.

During fiscal 2011, when Nelson and Gant each held the office for approximately six months, BPro received $227,816.

In fiscal 2012, which ended June 30 of this year, BPro was paid $181,780 under Gant.

For years, BPro, an established part of the Pierre business community, was called in to perform various projects for the secretary of state's office rather than going through state government's internal technology agency, the Bureau of Information and Telecommunications.

Two sets of state laws govern BIT's roles.

One of the laws specifically allows the legislative branch, the judicial branch, the Public Utilities Commission and the constitutional offices to make their own decisions about information and technology services.

Jim Edman, the deputy commissioner for BIT, said that within the agencies under the control of the governor, there is an understanding, based on the laws and on the governor's direction, that agencies work closely with BIT, including development and other services.

"Of course we prefer to use BIT development staff if possible, but we also help agencies contract with outside vendors when that makes sense," he said.

Edman said those agencies outside the direct control of the governor have had a "freer hand" in deciding whether to use BIT or to use another vendor.

Such was the case with Gant's use of BPro in the past year to establish on the secretary of state's website various new functions for filing reports electronically and for making more information available over the Internet.

BPro's usage broadened in recent years, according to a review of state contracts.