While Team Noem responded to the Government Accountability Board’s finding that the Governor may have engaged in misconduct and have some uppance coming by questioning the judges’ legal integrity and shouting ad ravnsborgem, the man who stands to gain most from putting Kristi in cuffs (no, not Corey Lewandowski) shows how to play a scandal just right.
Democratic candidate for governor Rep. Jamie Smith took one quick Twitter poke at the headline-making actions of South Dakota’s gun-shy ethics panel, saying simply, “Integrity matters. Our state’s highest office is not meant to be a tool ofr personal gain. We deserve better.” Then Smith slept on it and came out this morning with this clever call for Noem-appointee Attorney General Mark Vargo to recuse himself from the investigation the GAB handed back to him and appoint a special prosecutor:
Note all the good notes Smith hits with this brief statement:
- Smith doesn’t get bogged down in the details (which is a challenge for journalists as we write about this action; I feel compelled to delineate that the matter the GAB referred to the Attorney General is the complaint the previous A.G. punted to the GAB last year concerning Noem’s alleged use of the state plane for out-of-state campaign travel, while the other matter the GAB unclearly disposed of yesterday was the complaint about her nepotistic intervention in her daughter’s real estate appraiser application, details that bloggers and wonks love but which will put lots of regular voters to sleep); he just says the GAB found “sufficient evidence to investigate the governor for her unethical behavior.” That one sentence sounds really good in a campaign statement and sounds really bad for his opponent.
- Smith gently expresses his confidence in the GAB members, all retired judges, by noting their good reputations and their long, deliberate process.
- While the Governor makes unsupported allegations that the GAB judges broke the law, Smith holds his horses and doesn’t even accuse Noem of illegal activity; he just says the “unanimous board” concluded that “Governor Noem’s conduct is suspect enough” (oooh, suspect—such a sinister word) “to warrant serious investigation into whether or not any laws were broken” (were broken—the gentle passive, softening the repeated poke at the Governor).
- Smith says Vargo should step aside from this investigation without attacking Vargo himself. Smith calls Vargo “a hard-working and honest public servant.” But then Smith appeals to those exact qualities to say that he trusts Vargo to come to the same conclusion as Smith, that the Governor’s recent appointment of Vargo to the Attorney Generalship “calls into question the neutrality of his office” (not of Vargo, but of his office).
Smith’s smart call for a special prosecutor got a bipartisan boost this afternoon when Republican Speaker of the House Spencer Gosch (R-23/Glenham) and Republican Representative Scott Odenbach (R-31/Spearfish) seconded Smith’s motion:
“I think in order to show the people of South Dakota that we take ethical violations and complaints seriously, then it is only appropriate that the Governor appointed Attorney General in Vargo steps aside, to allow for a third party investigator to look into the ethics violations by Governor Noem,” Gosch said.
“It is only appropriate for him (Vargo) to immediately recuse himself and appoint a special counsel so that there is a continued faith and trust in the process, that you are held accountable no matter who you are,” Odenbach said in a statement [Austin Goss, “Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Ask AG Vargo to Recuse Himself from Noem Investigation,” KSFY, 2022.08.23].
Having two leading Republicans join the Democratic candidate for governor in calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the Governor’s unethical conduct moves Smith’s call past the level of mere campaign stunt to a bipartisan request for a fair investigation with no hint of a conflict of interest. Sure, Gosch and Odenbach could still be grinding an axe at Vargo for successfully prosecuting their guy Ravnsborg and at Noem for pushing that impeachment. But not every voter is scoring that closely at home; the headline for most voters will be, “Republicans and Democrats agree: special prosecutor better for investigating Noem’s ethics.”
If Gosch and Odenbach are still harboring a grudge against Vargo over impeachment, Vargo can coolly and unimpeachably snark back by appointing his spectacular impeachment trial co-counsel, Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy, to the special prosecutor position.
Alexis Tracy as special prosecutor—think about that. With Vargo, Tracy stepped into a highly charged political minefield, conducted a sharp and professional prosecution, and, without a hint of partisan bias, secured from an anxious Senate the first impeachment in South Dakota history. Who better to conduct an even more politically sensitive investigation, amidst national media scrutiny that would far exceed the idle curiosity some big papers showed in the unprecedented impeachment of South Dakota’s dopiest but deadliest attorney general, against a celebrity-seeking Governor on the edge of running for President, than the rock-solid small-town prosecutor who showed herself ready for the big time by convicting Jason Ravsnborg?
Smith is playing the call for a special prosecutor just right… and his Republican House colleagues are helping him. Hmmm… what was that Smith was saying back in February about Republicans’ willingness to work with him?