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South Dakota considers creating government watchdog board

February 22, 2017 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A government watchdog board would help investigate statewide officeholders and executive branch employees in South Dakota under a bill endorsed by a legislative panel on Wednesday.

The move comes after Republican lawmakers repealed a voter-imposed government ethics overhaul that included an ethics commission. The proposed State Government Accountability Board, which would be attached to the attorney general’s office, would review and investigate allegations including bribery and theft of public funds.

Democratic Rep. Karen Soli, the bill’s sponsor, said it would help preserve the integrity of South Dakota government. The governor’s office supports the plan, and Attorney General Marty Jackley called it “good government.” The bill heads to the full House after receiving approval Wednesday from the chamber’s State Affairs Committee.

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Soli said the board offers an opening to people who believe they see wrongdoing in the executive branch.

“We owe it to the people of South Dakota to find a way to do this better,” she said. “This proposed law will help us to do that.”

Under the bill, if the board believes a crime has been committed, the matter would be referred to the Division of Criminal Investigation.

The four-person board would be populated by former or retired judges. It would take a majority vote to conduct a contested case hearing to offer the accused official a chance to respond to an allegation. If the panel determined a violation has occurred, it would have options including issuing reprimands or making recommendations to the governor.

Board files including reports, complaints and investigative records would be confidential until the panel decided to conduct a hearing.

Doug Kronaizl, a spokesman for a group that supports the repealed government ethics overhaul, said in a statement after the vote that replacement bills under consideration “fall short of the tough provisions approved by the people.”

“South Dakotans demanded a strong, independent ethics commission with the power to oversee Pierre’s political class,” Kronaizl said.