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Reporters could view Benda materials

By Bob Mercer

Capitol Correspondent

PIERRE — State Attorney General Marty Jackley said Tuesday evening he will allow a limited release of the investigation reports regarding the death of Richard Benda.

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Jackley made the decision in response to a public-records request filed Tuesday morning on behalf of this newspaper and six others.

Investigation materials generally are prohibited from public inspection under South Dakota’s records laws, but there are provisions for exceptions.

Jackley said there is a public interest in this case requiring that a remedy be fashioned that protects criminal process and personal privacy interests.

Jackley said he will allow a pool arrangement, with two reporters permitted to view the reports, photographs and other materials and then share their information afterward with other news reporters.

The concept is similar to the pool arrangements used for news reporters witnessing death-sentence executions of criminals in South Dakota.

The agreement of one family member will be necessary first, and no materials will be shown to the reporters that could be used in a grand jury proceeding if there is one, Jackley said.

Items such as photos involving personal privacy also will be restricted.

Jackley said the reports won’t be released to the general public. He said he couldn’t determine a way that redacted versions could be made.

Benda was secretary of tourism and state development from 2006 through 2010 in the Rounds administration. His body was found Oct. 22. The state investigation determined that he died Oct. 20 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen that was ruled as suicide.

Benda is a significant figure in events involving immigrant investors in South Dakota business projects.

A large amount of information about the federal EB-5 visa program has surfaced since his death.

It is known that a federal grand jury issued a subpoena to the office of Gov. Dennis Daugaard in March and that various individuals, including Benda, reportedly have been questioned by federal authorities in the past two years.

Northern Beef Packers in Aberdeen reportedly is one of the projects in question.

Northern Beef reportedly received approximately $60 million in loans from foreign investors, who provide $500,000 apiece in return for hoping to qualify for permanent visas allowing them to live anywhere in the United States.

The seven separately-owned daily newspapers for which the public-records request was made will receive one of the pool slots for a reporter of their choice and a second reporter will be selected.

The reporters’ inspection of the records will be conducted in December at a date to be determined when Jackley and the reporters are available.

The process is expected to take much of a day.

“Despite the lack of any credible evidence calling into question either the independent forensic pathologist report or law enforcement’s crime scene death investigation reconstruction and forensic testing, there is a public interest given the unique nature and circumstances of this case that must be balanced with the criminal process including the presumption of innocence and individual medical and privacy interest,” Jackley wrote in a preliminary version of his decision.