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Monday, August 20, 2007

When the Kremlin came to Pierre

When it comes to open and accessible government, South Dakota really sucks.

It ranks number 50 in the Better Government Association's Integrity Index. The Better Government Association is a group in Chicago that was founded to get the city out from under the mob rule of Al Capone. It has been trying to keep government straght ever since.

Here at home, the Attorney General and the Governor are saying things about upgrading South Dakota's open government laws. South Dakota Watch has written about closed and inacessible government in Souith Dakota. I have harped about it over the years. It seems encouraging when the top state officials take up the cry, but I really don't see any opportunity for anyone who has had to deal with South Dakota's secret government to have much input. The Governor convenes a select group of knowledgeable citizens once a year to analyze the matter. It's called the Governor's Hunt.

The BGA Integrity Index was a study financed by the Ford Foundation. Here is the percentile ranking for South Dakota on the various categories:

Freedom of Information: 0%
Whistle-blower protection: 39%
Campaign finance: 39%
Gifts, trips, and honoraria: 0%
Conflict of interest: 47%
Total percentile rankings: 125%
Percentile ranking: 25%
Rank among 50 states: 50

But those statistics do not tell the full story. A few years ago, when democracy was getting out of hand in Russia, Alexander Putin came to South Dakota to get mentored in the techniques of suppression. For example, the state had money stashed in bank accounts. It would not tell the state treasurer at the time where the money was or how much it was.
When some state officials got nervous about such hidden funds and the relationship of state government to the companies that were enticed into the state to practice usury, they mounted an investigation and made some noise about it. The Governor, Bill Janklow, put a stop to that in a hurry. He came up with the infamous Gag Law that could put a state official in jail if the official said anything about any investigations going on into the affairs of private corporations. The person who "carried the water" on this bill was Majority Leader Michael Rounds (you know, Mikey likes it!).

The worst thing about secrecy in government is that it protects the crooked and incompetent. For example, the day before the 2004 election, a young professor was found dead with a bullet wound in the back of his head at the door to his office building on the NSU campus. It was a messy case. The policeman who was assigned to campuis security suddenly resigned. This came when the police department was in turmoil with with resignations and accusations. All sorts of forensic evidence was rumored about this case, and eventually the Chief of Police announced that it was a suicide and closed the case. Maybe it was. But the files on the case are tucked away in some dark catacomb, never to see the light of day. If there was a sunshine law, people, mostly the South Dakota press (if it can ever find the initiative) , could examine the case and see if the evidence supports the conclusion or if the folks with the rubber gloves and tweezers bungled the investigation. We don't know. And so accusations and rumors continue to flow.

Last year, our political party realized that the voter registration list was terribly out-of-date. Nothing is more dismaying than to telephone someone and be told that he has been dead for ten years. We investigated whether there was a list of death certificates so that we could purge the list of the deceased. State officials had closed off access to vital statistics records on security grounds, saying that they needed to protect against identity theft. There are ways to protect against identity theft, but in South Dakota the answer is to make even the most routine information secret.

Making government open is not a matter that needs much thought or knowledge. There are a few laws that are so ambiguous that they make loopholes for secrecy that you can drive a truck through. In South Dakota, officials drive entire convoys through them. Changing the words to specify when confidentiality is legitimate and when the information must be exposed to the sunshine is not that big of a legal problem.

Then the State could borrow a Freedom of Information code from a state that has a good one and pass it as law. PP at South Dakota War College might regard it as plagiarism, but it would be better than a set of codified laws that in effect tell the citizens to go get screwed.

There is one aspect of Freedom of Information laws that is a problem. Some officials ignore the requests for information. In South Dakota, we could take the Gag Law and make it a law that subjects officials to prosecution if they do not abide by it.

Well, we can dream can't we? Or find reality where there are good laws.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States