GOP lawmakers steered probe into intoxicated state senators
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Senate Republicans in a private 2020 meeting planned how to achieve an already-negotiated outcome to a committee investigating a pair of lawmakers for being intoxicated during legislative proceedings even before the committee had a chance to meet, according to a television report.
A transcript of the April 2020 Republican caucus meeting was obtained by KELO-TV and reported Sunday. It showed how Republicans held a private caucus meeting to discuss how to quickly and quietly resolve a legislative investigation into the two most powerful senators at the time, Sens. Kris Langer and Brock Greenfield. The pair were accused of showing up intoxicated at a legislative session that had stretched into the early morning hours as lawmakers discussed the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For critics of Republican rule in South Dakota’s Statehouse, the revelation of the meeting’s details provided an egregious example of how the fate of bills and the workings of state government are often decided in closed-door GOP meetings.
“It’s very closed, very secretive,” said Peggy Gibson, a former Democratic House member who spent years advocating, mostly without success, for ethics reforms in the Legislature. “Everything is decided ahead of time.”
As lawmakers in 2020 prepared for a special committee appointed to look into the allegations against Langer and Greenfield, the two lawmakers hired former Attorney General Marty Jackley. He then negotiated with Sen. Jim Bolin, who was the Republican assistant majority leader at the time, and Sen. Arthur Rusch, the Republican chosen to chair the investigative committee. They reached a potential resolution: Langer and Greenfield would apologize for their behavior if the Legislature only “admonished” them.
Bolin and Rusch presented that agreement to the Republican caucus and discussed ways to achieve it, according to the transcript from KELO-TV. By the end of the meeting, Bolin chose five lawmakers for the nine-member committee who would hold to the negotiated agreement when the committee met later that month.
Bolin told The Associated Press on Monday that he had been suddenly thrown into leadership at the time and felt he was “informally” tasked with working “through the whole process.”
“I’ve never had to deal with anything like that before or in my life.”
Rusch did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the caucus meeting. However, according to the transcript, Rusch, a former judge, likened the agreement to two parties in a criminal or civil case working out a negotiation before it goes to trial.
But the extent to which the caucus planned out the results of the legislative investigation prompted objections even among some Republicans who were a part of the meeting.
Then-Sen. Deb Soholt, a Republican warned during the meeting that such planning would result in a “sham committee” and that voting on a motion to appoint the committee, instead of reaching an informal consensus, was “unprecedented.”
“Why are we doing the committee step that feels fake?” she asked. “It looks like no room for conversation amongst members that want to talk about it.”
Republican Rep. Phil Jensen, who was in the Senate at the time and initially brought attention to Langer and Greenfield’s condition, echoed that sentiment on Monday.
“It was obvious they were stacking the jury,” he said. “It was a sham committee.”
The committee eventually met for nine hours over two days, but in the end, the committee resolved the investigation just as the caucus had planned. The five Republicans defeated a Democrat-led effort to censure Langer and Greenfield instead of admonishing them. Then Langer and Greenfield both apologized.
While Langer later that year dropped out of her reelection campaign, Greenfield was reelected and is mounting a bid for school and public lands commissioner.