I don’t do New Year’s resolutions—I do New Year’s Top Ten lists!
I do resolve to maintain my commitment to the original journalism that sets Dakota Free Press apart from other typists in the South Dakota Blogosphere. Here’s a list of ten blog stories (in chronological order) in which, instead of starting from published articles and adding original analysis and commentary, I went out and got the story myself.
Jackley Lets Bollen Off Easy in EB-5 Plea Bargain: In February, EB-5 czar Joop Bollen pled guilty to one felony count of withdrawing without authorization $300,000 meant to be held in security for the state and using that cash. In return, Attorney General Marty Jackley dropped the other four felony charges and did not push for any tougher sentence than what Judge Tony Portra issued: $2,104 fine and court costs, two years probation with no travel restriction, and suspended imposition of sentence (meaning a little more than a year from now, if Bollen behaves, this conviction disappears from public view). I covered the plea hearing asked A.G. Jackley pointed questions at his press conference immediately afterward.
Russian Gun Gal Has South Dakota Connections: Maria Butina, photogenic leader of a Russian gun-rights movement, popped up in various national media reports connecting Russian influence peddlers with the National Rifle Association and Donald Trump. I put my journalistic and linguistic skills to work (like Roy Moore, I speak Russian!) and found Butina connected with Dusty Johnson, Mathew Wollmann, and shadowy South Dakota politico Paul Erickson.
Mercer Talks Janklow, Journalism, and Meningioma: Bob Mercer had a tough year. One of only two reporters focused on covering state politics in Pierre (the other is AP’s James Nord), Mercer collapsed at an IM 22 court hearing last December and missed much of the 2017 Legislative Session with serious health problems. Yet he recovered and returned to the Capitol beat. When he came to Aberdeen to receive the South Dakota Newspaper Association’s Distinguished Service Award, Mercer stepped out from behind his notepad and allowed me to interview him for what turned into a great three-part podcast discussing his early journalism career and his observations on the state of South Dakota journalism, never-before-shared details of his tenure in the Janklow Administration, and his health issues.
Task Force Discusses Initiative & Referendum, Produces Disappointing Bills: After riling the electorate with its hasty repeal of Initiated Measure 22, the 2017 Legislature tried to placate voters by convening an interim task force to discuss improvements to the initiative and referendum process. Several South Dakotans testified before the task force, mostly asking for more protection of the people’s right to legislate through ballot measures. I attended the biggest day of public testimony in Pierre and offered my own testimony. I also closely followed the subsequent meetings and the mostly disappointing, anti-democracy bills that the task force advanced for Legislative consideration in the 2018 Session.
Legislators Travel the Country on Your Dime: In October I analyzed the out-of-state travel for which forty legislators charged us taxpayers nearly $80,000 in Fiscal Year 2017. Nearly $20,000 of that money covered nine Republican legislators’ trips to corporate-fascist propaganda sessions held by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Sexual Harassment in Pierre Complicates Jackley’s Nomination of Abdallah: In October, former lobbyist Tiffany Campbell came to this blog to accuse former legislator and law enforcement officer Gene Abdallah of making lewd comments to her during the 2012 Legislative Session. In December, former legislator Patricia Shiery told Dakota Free Press that her fellow Republican House members, including then-Speaker Val Rausch, were aware of Campbell’s complaint about Abdallah and literally laughed it off. Abdallah has been nominated to the Board of Pardons and Parole by Attorney General Marty Jackley, who is running for Governor. Jackley is sticking by his nominee. The Senate will hold a confirmation hearing for Abdallah, perhaps awkwardly close to the time its members attend new sexual harassment training on January 17 prompted by media attention to accusations of a Capitol culture of sexual harassment.
Marshall County Farmers Discuss TransCanada and Keystone Spill: The Keystone pipeline spewed 5,000 barrels of crude oil onto the prairie in Marshall County in November. Kent Moeckly and Lillian Anderson, landowners on the pipeline route on either side of the spill, gave me an extensive podcast interview about their experience with pipeline owner TransCanada and maps that help put the spill in hydrological perspective.
Noem’s Estate Tax Story Falls Apart: Kristi Noem’s sob story about going into crushing debt to pay estate tax in the 1990s finally collapsed under the weight of documented facts. This December, I analyzed documents from the 1994 probate case of Noem’s father, Ronald Arnold, and found that those documents cite $84,454 in federal estate tax due on the taxable $1,108,977 portion of an estate consisting of over 4,100 acres in Hamlin County. Yet Arnold’s will—which he clearly signed, contrary to Noem’s past public statements—shows he anticipated the federal estate tax and arranged for his family to receive over $1.2 million in life insurance and annuities to cover that estate tax and other debts. This reporting and other media attention have forced Noem to pivot from pathos to principle in her ongoing effort to trick voters into supporting more tax breaks (and trust management fees!) for the ultra-rich.
Mickelson and Kostboth Profit from CAFO Push: Almost lost in the Noem/Arnold estate tax news was another story I broke the same day: current Speaker of the House G. Mark Mickelson and former South Dakota ag development chief Paul Kostboth run a CAFO consulting business. Why does that matter? Speaker Mickelson uses his political position to push factory feedlots, going as far as telling rural counties that if they don’t accept CAFOs as their only viable path to economic self-preservation, he might make it tougher for them to receive state funding. Kostboth appears to have pulled a Joop Bollen, leaving his position in state government to do the same work for profit in the private sector. Mickelson’s conflict of interest in particular appears more egregious when we see his record of watering down anti-corruption legislation to exempt legislators from scrutiny.
Lake Norden Cheese Factory Seeks TIF for Construction ALready Underway: While cruising through Hamlin County to read up on the Noem/Arnold estate, I stopped by Lake Norden and got some pictures of the earth-moving underway at Agropur’s big cheese factory. The Canadian company is buying up property, demolishing houses, moving dirt, staging construction materials, and securing zoning variances for an expansion that will double its milk-handling capacity. But even though Agropur appears to have the finances to launch this project, it is asking Hamlin County to provide tax increment financing, which would allow it to pay for certain public infrastructure expenses with a portion of its property tax payments rather than its own investment capital.
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This list is skewed toward the latter part of the year, since I’ve written 1,520 blog posts in 2017—this list makes 1,521—and that’s a lot to remember! I welcome your suggestions of memorable original stories you’ve enjoyed here in 2017.
Not fitting into this list as a single story but deserving mention as an ongoing focus is my coverage of the South Dakota Legislature. I didn’t cover every bill, but a quick look through my post tags finds over 200 blog posts tagging 105 separate bills and resolutions from the 2017 Session. The bills earning the most Dakota Free Press posts:
- Senate Bill 54: the wild and wacky campaign finance reform bill, whose biggest change was allowing businesses and unions to donate money directly to candidates.
- House Bill 1069: the Republican repeal of Initiated Measure 22.
- Senate Bill 149: the bill allowing adoption agencies to discriminate against willing parents based on religion.
- House Bill 1072: the NRA-pushed but Daugaard-vetoed effort to allow South Dakotans to carry concealed firearms without a permit.
- Senate Bill 176: the Governor’s watered-down but still dangerous anti-protest law, created in reaction to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota.
Note that all of those stories, Legislative and otherwise, are about South Dakota. We talk plenty about Trump here, but the greatest value Dakota Free Press adds is analysis, commentary, and, as you can see above, a lot of original reporting on South Dakota. I am proud of this work, and I am proud to use the support many of you readers provide by sponsoring ads and ringing the Blog Tip Jar, to continue that work in 2018. Thank you!