SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakotans might never know for sure who raised the money for billboard messages attacking five state lawmakers and calling for state Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s impeachment.
South Dakota’s campaign-finance laws are one possible reason. Federal laws on not-for-profit organizations, such as Dakota Institute for Legislative Solutions in this instance, are another. Together they form a tangle difficult, and maybe impossible, to penetrate.
Start by looking at the form that South Dakota law says statewide and legislative candidates must file. One of the eight pages is for expenditures. Candidates routinely lump all of their spending into the 15 broad categories on that page.
There is no requirement that a candidate further itemize any spending.
That means, short of a candidate specifically detailing it, spending on a billboard — or in this case, routing money through Dakota Institute for Legislative Solutions — would never show up on a candidate’s report.
It’s possible the money didn’t come from a candidate’s campaign. However, South Dakota’s campaign-finance reporting law allows for this type of political camouflage.
By contrast, it’s more difficult to hide spending at the federal level. The Federal Election Commission form for U.S. House and U.S. Senate candidates requires itemized expenditures, known as disbursements.
Add to the state mix the matter of timing and the many dozens of candidates running this year. State law requires annual reports by elected officials and statewide candidates’ committees during off-election years. Nothing jumped out from the reports for 2021. But a transfer might have occurred.
In election years, candidates for statewide offices also must file pre-primary reports in May. As for legislative candidates, they have to file only if they have a primary. All must file pre-general election reports in October.
In recent years, there have been instances where a legislative candidate who didn’t have a primary raised thousands of dollars during the primary period and distributed it to others’ campaigns, but those numbers didn’t show up until the donating candidate filed a pre-general report.
South Dakota law does require that independent communications be reported. Dakota Institute for Legislative Solutions, based in McLean, Virginia, did so for the billboards on Monday, March 14, filing a two-page document.
The message didn’t identify the five top donors, however, as required by state law, nor did it carry a required disclaimer. But the money can be difficult to definitively trace if it flowed from a person or committee, through one or more other committees, on its way to Dakota Institute for Legislative Solutions.
The organization itself hasn’t filed as a committee with the South Dakota Secretary of State elections office.
The billboards come in the wake of Governor Kristi Noem and state Public Safety Secretary Craig Price last year releasing videos of Ravnsborg’s interviews with North Dakota investigators, as well as other information, after his September 12, 2020, crash that killed pedestrian Joe Boever.
Noem has repeatedly called for Ravnsborg to resign and she wanted him impeached if he didn’t. Members of the House panel deciding whether to recommend impeachment were later hit with calls arranged through a telemarketing firm. Price recently released a letter drawing further attention to Ravnsborg’s driving and comments.
The House Select Committee on Investigation plans to meet again March 28 and reach a decision on recommending impeachment. The House is scheduled to reconvene April 12 to debate it. If a majority of representatives vote to impeach, the Senate would conduct a trial at least 20 days later. A two-thirds majority — 24 — would be needed to convict Ravnsborg and remove him from office.