Sometimes the GOP’s tent gets maybe too big in South Dakota.
Trevor Jones, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, has apologized to the public and to Randy Seiler, Democratic candidate for state attorney general, for inviting the Republican AG candidate Jason Ravnsborg into the DPS tent to emcee an event this past weekend at the State Fair.
Democrats hold no state offices and have been much less successful than Republicans in the state for decades. This year, Seiler is considered a strong candidate, based in part on his years of experience as a prosecutor under Republican and Democratic U.S. attorneys and Ravnsborg’s relative lack of experience.
But Seiler told the Capital Journal he asked Attorney General Marty Jackley to open a criminal investigation over the matter and is filing a complaint with the state ethics commission.
Seiler, a Fort Pierre attorney who capped a long career as a federal prosecutor with two years as U.S. attorney for South Dakota, said that on Sunday at the State Fair in Huron.
Jones was at the Highway Patrol’s booth for “an official government department event. It was advertised as such (telling people) to come and meet all the officials of the department.”
“Trevor goes to the Republican Party headquarters and invites Jason to come be emcee,” Seiler said. Ravnsborg “got to wear his official campaign shirt. . . He took a bunch of photos and posted them on his own website and he was speaking at the mic. I think it’s a violation of state law.”
“Using state resources to influence an election is a violation of South Dakota Codified Law,” Seiler said in a statement. “I find it disappointing and alarming that leadership within the Department of Public Safety used extremely poor judgement in politicizing a State Fair event, the Department of Public Safety, and the Highway Patrol. Doing so put on-duty law enforcement officers in an uncomfortable and compromising situation. This is the kind of cronyism and corrupt behavior that has infected our state government.”
“I’m filing an ethics complaint,” Seiler told the Capital Journal, referring to the state Government Accountability Board.
Ravnsborg (it’s pronounced “Rounsborg”) did not return messages from the Capital Journal on Tuesday — or from other news organizations, reportedly — asking about Seiler’s concerns.
He had posted photos, tweets and otherwise, on his campaign’s social media pages, including one of him talking with uniformed officers in the DPS tent and this message:
“Awesome day Sunday at the State Fair! I had the honor of introducing some of law enforcement’s finest! THANK YOU FOR ALL YOU DO!”
Seiler said he was in the Democrat Party booth Sunday at the Fair, also campaigning, and wasn’t invited by Jones to the DPS tent.
So he called Jones about it in Pierre on Tuesday and Jones apologized, Seiler said.
In a letter dated Sept. 4 to Seiler, Jones wrote:
“I would like to apologize for my lapse in judgement related to Department of Public Safety (DPS) Day on Sunday at the South Dakota State Fair. This is the department’s third year as a day-sponsor at the State Fair. Our goal at the fair is to promote and inform citizens on the various ways they can stay safe as well as to allow fairgoers to interact with Highway Patrol troopers and other DPS staff.”
“During DPS day, I am often called upon to introduce the individuals conducting the various activities and demonstrations that take place in the day-sponsor tent. As I was returning to the tent to make another introduction for the Highway Patrol canine demonstration, I ran into Mr. Ravnsborg and, on the spur of the moment, invited him to make the introduction in order to give the audience a break from me.”
“I had no intention of showing support for any particular candidate; however, I know that my choice was viewed differently. I apologize.”
“The people at the Department of Public Safety are the same people you meet on the campaign trail. They are good, hard working individuals who put in a hard day’s work then go home and care for their families. The State Fair is our opportunity to interact with them, thank them, and relay some important safety information.”
“Randy, most importantly, I consider you a friend, a friendship formed over the years. It is my hope this oversight will not cause a permanent fracture between us. My actions should not be seen as a reflection on the employees of the Department of Public Safety, who dedicate their lives every day to protecting our citizens. I wish you the best. Sincerely, (Trevor Jones.)
Jones was not available to talk to any reporters on Tuesday, instead releasing a similar, if shorter, apology as the one he sent Seiler:
“Last Sunday at the State Fair, I ran into a candidate for Attorney General and on the spur-of-the-moment, invited him to introduce the Highway Patrol canine demonstration. It was a lapse in judgement on my part and I apologize. It was not intended to demonstrate support for any particular candidate and should not reflect on the hard-working employees of the Department of Public Safety.”
A longtime prosecutor, Seiler says it maybe is a criminal matter. He talked to Attorney General Marty Jackley on Tuesday. ‘I told him I was filing an ethics complaint . . . about using state resources to promote a campaign for the Republican candidate and to request a criminal investigation. “
He said Jackley referred him to the assistant attorney general who works with the government accountability board about how to file the documents.
Jackley told him “he wants to look at the statutes” before deciding and suggested Seiler contact the local prosecutor, the Beadle County state’s attorney in Huron, Seiler said.
The law broken, Seiler says, is SDCL 12-27-20, that reads: “Expenditure of public funds to influence election outcome prohibited. The state, an agency of the state, and the governing body of any county, municipality, or other political subdivision of the state may not expend or permit the expenditure of public funds for the purpose of influencing the nomination or election of any candidate, or for the petitioning of a ballot question on the ballot or the adoption or defeat of any ballot question. This section may not be construed to limit the freedom of speech of any officer or employee of the state or any political subdivision who is speaking in the officer’s or employee’s personal capacity. This section does not prohibit the state, its agencies, or the governing body of any political subdivision of the state from presenting factual information solely for the purpose of educating the voters on a ballot question.”
Seiler said Ravnsborg appeared to have been campaigning in the DPS event, using state employees “on duty,” for his campaign.
Doug Sombke, president of the South Dakota Farmers Union, tweeted that he was at the event and “Jason clearly was campaigning when he addressed the crowd.”
Democratic activists were working the wires Tuesday, including Cory Heidelberger who blogs at DakotaFreePress.com, pointing out the incident illustrates perhaps that Ravnsborg is unfamiliar with state laws, part of the inexperience critics have said he has too much of.
A lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves who served in the Middle East, Ravnsborg is a Yankton attorney.
On Aug. 17, Seiler was campaigning in Fort Pierre at the state 4-H finals rodeo weekend and was awarded a rodeo buckle by state 4-H leaders for his pro bono legal work for state 4-H rodeo the past year.
He was photographed with 4-H leaders and the buckle, while wearing his campaign shirt, which he was wearing because he was campaigning at the big weekend rodeo in his hometown.
But that’s not illegal, Seiler said on Tuesday, because 4-H is a private nonprofit organization.
“That’s different. 4-H is not a state-sponsored agency, there weren’t any state government funds involved.”