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SD reporter sues to get Benda death reports

SIOUX FALLS (AP) — A journalist is suing the South Dakota attorney general for more information about the death of former state economic development director Richard Benda.

Bob Mercer, who writes for several daily newspapers, failed to secure records through an administrative law process and has now taken the matter to circuit court, the Argus Leader newspaper reported.

Attorney General Marty Jackley has agreed to release more information about Benda’s death but only under certain conditions, chiefly that Benda’s family had to consent.

“Confidentiality of death records isn’t absolute, and their disclosure is subject to the discretion of the custodian of the records,” Mercer said in his lawsuit. “The attorney general appropriated to himself authority to create and enforce special criteria for release of the records.”

Jackley said he followed the law — an assertion backed up by the administrative law judge.

“I would have been operating within my statutory authority to just flat-out deny access, and I did not do that,” Jackley said. “I chose the route of openness and have been nothing but criticized for that.”

Benda’s October 2013 death was ruled a suicide. At the time, Jackley was preparing to file felony theft charges against him following allegations of financial misconduct at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development surrounding a program that administered an investment-for-green-card program.

Independent candidate for governor Mike Myers is skeptical of the scenario under which authorities say Benda killed himself — securing a shotgun to a tree and using a stick to push the trigger, shooting himself in the abdomen. Myers held a press conference in Rapid City on Thursday in which he re-enacted the scenario.

The event drew only 18 people, five of whom were journalists, the Rapid City Journal reported.

Myers offered no proof of an alternate theory but said he wanted to get people to think.

“We have to find some way to give credibility to the conclusion that Richard Benda killed himself,” Myers said.