This report has been updated.
PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota Legislature’s Executive Board on Tuesday confirmed the hiring of attorney Ron Parsons of Sioux Falls to represent the Legislature regarding the governor’s request for an advisory opinion from the South Dakota Supreme Court on legislative conflicts of interest.
Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, a lawyer, reviewed past legislative-conflict decisions reached by the South Dakota Supreme Court. “There’s no guidelines in those cases,” he said. “There’s just almost no guidance in those cases that you make sense of.”
Regarding the new memo on the topic by the Legislature’s staff, Schoenbeck said, “It doesn’t provide much guidance.”
According to Republican Rep. Hugh Bartels, the board’s chair, Parsons was chosen based on independent recommendations from Schoenbeck and House Republican leader Will Mortenson, a lawyer. Parsons, a 1997 graduate of the University of South Dakota school of law, served as the United State Attorney for the district of South Dakota from 2018 to 2021. He is now in private practice at the Johnson Janklow Abdallah firm.
Bartels said the board will send an email and a letter to all 105 legislators asking them to review whether they have potential conflicts of interest. Parsons will use the examples, minus names, in his brief to the Supreme Court.
Governor Kristi Noem sought the opinion. She now has two vacancies to fill, after Jessica Castleberry resigned from the Senate over a conflict of interest and Jess Olson resigned from the House of Representatives earlier this month. Noem sent a letter to the Supreme Court, requesting an advisory opinion. Bartels and Schoenbeck also sent letters to the Supreme Court in support of her request. So did state Attorney General Marty Jackley.
“The attorney general says he’s got over 20 legislators that have contacted him. There’s a whole lot of confusion. They’re going to put those examples in the brief so the court can see why we need the guidance,” Schoenbeck said.
Said Mortenson, “We know a little and we don’t know a lot. This provision was written in the 1800s when the Legislature would approve contracts one by one.” He added, “That’s what authorizing these laws meant at that time.”
Mortenson was referring to Article III, Section 12 of the South Dakota Constitution that includes the statement, “nor shall any member of the Legislature during the term for which he shall have been elected, or within one year thereafter, be interested, directly or indirectly, in any contract with the state or any county thereof, authorized by any law passed during the term for which he shall have been elected.”
Mortenson said about the court’s past decisions and the current expectation, “There’s a lot of gray. Hopefully, we get a little more black and white.” He added, “I would say this body doesn’t have anything to hide, and we’re not and will continue to operate that way.”
“This is a big problem,” Bartels said, noting he’s a member of a nonprofit board. “Is that a conflict?”
Bartels’ advice to other legislators: “Take the time to really think about potential conflicts, and nonprofit was one I hadn’t thought of.” He added, “Being an active leader in your community, where does it stop and start?”
The lawmakers’ discussion Tuesday came after a presentation from state Auditor Rich Sattgast about the responsibilities of his office regarding conflicts of interest. He said his office is getting a new system that will allow it to track conflicts of interest.
Sattgast said as many as 25 current legislators could have conflicts of interest. Schoenbeck specifically mentioned Republican Rep. Kevin Jensen, whose name Schoenbeck said “is all over” state contract documents for a drug and alcohol addiction program that has received money from the state Department of Social Services.
Public records on file with the South Dakota Secretary of State show that Jensen in 1999 incorporated Prairie View Prevention Services. He and his wife were listed as directors. A subsequent filing showed her as president and secretary while he was vice president and treasurer. He won election to the state House in 2016. Since then, the annual reports contained only her name.