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'Misconduct' at state office was under investigation prior to former official's death

Allegations of financial misconduct in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development were being investigated prior to the recent death of the office’s former leader.

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The body of Richard Benda, 59, who oversaw the GOED as state secretary of tourism and development from 2006 to 2010, was found Oct. 22 in rural Lake Andes. The death is still under investigation, but authorities have said Benda died of a gunshot wound.

Since Benda’s death, The Daily Republic has received multiple off-the-record tips that he may have been under investigation by state and federal authorities. Wednesday, Gov. Dennis Daugaard issued a written statement acknowledging an investigation into the GOED, but the governor did not mention Benda.

“Earlier this year, I became aware of alleged misconduct, prior to my administration, at the economic development office,” Daugaard said in the statement. “I asked the state Attorney General to investigate and provided all relevant materials to him. There has also been a federal investigation. I refer any further questions regarding the investigations to the Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney.

“I take very seriously my responsibility as Governor to protect taxpayer dollars and to ensure the integrity of state economic development programs,” Daugaard continued. “I am confident in the integrity of those in my administration who work at GOED, and at my direction, GOED has initiated an independent review to verify that any alleged misconduct was an isolated incident.”

Richard BendaThe Daily Republic spoke by phone with Tony Venhuizen, the governor’s director of policy and communications, who supplied the statement. Venhuizen declined to say if the investigation into the alleged misconduct involved Benda and also declined further comment, except to say that the independent review is being conducted by an accounting firm.

Attorney General Marty Jackley confirmed in his own statement issued after the governor’s that “requests have been made for authorities to review allegations of financial misconduct at the Office of Economic Development. That investigation is ongoing, and I am therefore unable to provide further information.”

In an interview with The Daily Republic, Jackley was asked if the misconduct investigation involved Benda. Jackley responded, “I can’t talk about an ongoing investigation.”

Jackley said Benda’s death is still being reviewed and previously said the probe into the death aimed to determine whether it was an accident, suicide or crime. Jackley is awaiting the autopsy report and forensic test results and expects to receive that information in the next few weeks.

“I’m waiting for the experts to tell me their expert opinion on both cause of death as well as time,” Jackley said.

Brendan Johnson, the U.S. attorney for South Dakota, said when contacted by The Daily Republic that his office does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation.

When Benda was state secretary of tourism and development, he served under then-Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican who is now seeking his party’s nomination to run for U.S. Senate. Daugaard was Rounds’ lieutenant governor.

Rounds’ spokesman issued the following written statement from Rounds on Wednesday night and declined other comment.

“I recently became aware of an investigation into some alleged misconduct as indicated by Gov. Daugaard,” Rounds’ statement said. “I believe it is appropriate that any further questions be directed to Attorney General Marty Jackley.”