South Dakota secretary of state, prosecutor field complaints about ads targeting impeachment committee

·3 min read
Billboards around Sioux Falls last weekend began displaying messaging targeting members of the House Select Committee on Impeachment.
Billboards around Sioux Falls last weekend began displaying messaging targeting members of the House Select Committee on Impeachment.

From Pierre to Sioux Falls, state and county officials are fielding complaints about the legality of billboard advertisements targeting lawmakers and calling for the impeachment of Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg.

The Secretary of State's Office as well as the Minnehaha County State's Attorney this week received formal complaints alleging that Dakota Institute for Legislative Solution violated campaign finance law when it began running attack ads accusing five state lawmakers of obstructing an ongoing impeachment investigation into the attorney general, who struck and killed a man with his vehicle in 2020.

"Whether this technically complies with the laws, it certainly violates the spirit of what South Dakotans wants in their officials and election, which is transparency and to know who’s funding these candidates or these statements," said Rep. Ryan Cwach, a Yankton Democrat who's serving on the House Select Committee on Investigation, of which four members are being targeted by Dakota Institute's billboard advertisements that have been running on rotation in Sioux Falls since Saturday.

More: Gov. Kristi Noem says impeachment billboards are not her doing. Lawmakers don't believe her.

Rep. Scott Odenbach, a Spearfish Republican who's sparred with Noem on various social issues in recent months but is not on the impeachment committee, has also been added to the list of lawmakers

Dakota Institute earlier this month announced its formation as a 501c4 nonprofit that aims to advance the agenda of Gov. Kristi Noem with a $2.3 million budget. It's not registered as a political action or campaign committee because it's not influencing the outcome of elections and has no official connection to the governor or any individual candidate or public official in South Dakota, according to its executive director, Rob Burgess.

Instead, the group considers itself a grassroots advocacy organization, and Monday filed as such when it reported the advertisements cost about $24,000, noted in what's called an independent communication expenditure report.

But even that distinction might not be enough for Dakota Institute to avoid legal scrutiny. That's because Cwach and other lawmakers, including House Speaker Spencer Gosch, say the ads violate South Dakota Codified Law 12-27-16.1, which mandates certain disclaimer language be placed in an advertisements being paid for by an individual or entity that isn't a campaign, ballot or political action committee.

More: Recording signals tampering with Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg impeachment process

Specifically, the law states that such an advertisement — whether it be television, radio or mailer communications — must either include the phrase "This communication is independently funded and not made in consultation with any candidate, political party, or political committee" or list the top five donors who made the largest contributions to the organization paying for the ads.

Neither appeared on Dakota Institute's impeachment ads.

"I feel that it is clear that they have to disclose their top donors, and they have failed to do so," House Speaker Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham, wrote to Secretary of State Steve Barnett Tuesday while filing a formal complaint against Dakota Institute.

Multiple attempts to obtain comment from Barnett and the Secretary of State's Office by the Argus Leader on Monday and Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Minnehaha County State's Attorney Daniel Haggar declined to comment, citing an open investigation into the complaint.

And Burgess did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The Attorney General's Office is also prepared to investigate Dakota Institute, though it has yet to receive a formal complaint.

"Further, if a formal complaint is made the decision would then be made as to whether an investigator would be appointed from within with a confidentiality wall to allow them to work independently or whether a special investigator from outside the office would be appointed to carry on," said Tim Bormann, chief of staff in the Attorney General's Office.

The House Select Committee on Investigation is scheduled to reconvene before delivering final recommendations on whether Ravnsborg should be impeached on March 29. The House of Representatives will consider the recommendations at a special meeting of the Legislature on April 12.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: SD secretary of state fields complaints about impeachment billboards