Northern Valley Beacon

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006


The Gropegate mob still feeling around for the issues

The Argus Leader carried a story today that the Governor has been requested to convene a special legislative session to deal with the misconduct charges against Sen. Dan Sutton, a Democrat from Flandreau. It asked for a reaction to the request from Sutton's attorney, Mike Butler:

Butler, a prominent criminal defense lawyer who represents Sutton, said the idea "borders on an anti-Democratic power play."

"People are attempting to influence the outcome of elections," Butler said. "And I hope the governor exercises some restraint here and trusts the investigative process of the attorney general's office and the Division of Criminal Investigation to do their jobs ... and not act impulsively as some people are inclined to do."

In the minds of some bloggers, the quotation from Butler about "an anti-Democratic power play" got contorted into the charge that the father of the page who made the misconduct complaint is trying to destroy the Democratic Party, and that the Argus Leader is promoting that story. Aside from quoting Mike Butler on the power play idea, we can find no mention of an attempt to destroy the Democratic Party. Some bloggers have demonstrated a prodigious abililty to treat news stories like Rorschach blots on which they impose their own fantasies and designs. Actuality is seldom anything like they represent it to be.

The power play idea is brought up by Bob Mercer, who has worked as a political reporter for the Aberdeen American News, the Rapid City Journal, and now reports political news and writes columns as a syndicated correspondent. He was Bill Janklow's press secretary. In his Capitol Notebook column which appeared last Saturday in the Aberdeen American News, he recounts that reporters had heard the rumors that Dan Sutton was under investigation last spring, but did not pursue the story when no action was taken by officials. Mercer outlines what he sees as a power play by Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the state senate majority leader. He leads his story this way:

"The blunt threat that Sen. Lee Schoenbeck made to Sen. Dan Sutton was supposed to be an offer that couldn't be refused."

He picks up the story this way:

"Then a month before the Nov. 7 elections, with Republicans in danger of least at least some seats in the Senate, and their majority possibly in danger, the father of the page--a prominent Democrat--took his complaint about the matter to Schoenbeck.

"The letter sent by Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, to Sutton lit the fuse for an explosion of publicity about the case. The follow-up letter by Senate Democratic leader Garry Moore of Yankton to the rest of the Democratic senators blew the matter wide open.

"Suddenly an unsubstantiated rumor became a news story because of the course of action taken by Schoenbeck in his role as the Senate's top elected officer.

"Schoenbeck's official letter, explaining to Sutton this his resignation would mean no Senate investigation, was an ultimatum. When Schoenbeck officially threatened a sitting senator with possible expulsion, Schoenbeck's action demanded a news story, regardless of what the underlying reasons might be.

"Hindsight suggests there could have been better ways for the Senate's leadership to handle this matter. With his letter Schoenbeck, who has made no secret of his desire to run for governor in 2010, put himself in a no-win situation right alongside Sutton.

"To some people, Schoenbeck's Godfather-like threat to Sutton looked like a Republican playing power politics a few weeks before the Nov. 7 elections.

"Among other people, an opposite question was being asked.

"Why would Schoebeck be willing to let a senator, accused of serioius improper conduct, resign rather than face official disciplinary action by the Senate? With the congressional page scandal looming, the last thing Schoenbeck wanted was to be accused of sweeping under the rug a complaint from a page's parent.

"But Schoenbeck's letter to Sutton also put Moore in a no-win situation.

"Moore said he didn't know about the allegations against Sutton until two weeks ago, when Schoenbeck called him. Moore said he preferred that the Legislature's executive board look into the matter, rather than proceed directly on the route that Schoenbeck took.

"By refusing to join Schoenbeck in signing the letter to Sutton, Moore faced the potential accusation that he wanted to cover up the matter. So Moore's subsequent letter to his fellow Democrats served as defense for himself while also making his caucus members aware of what was happening.

"But the Moore letter also back-fired on him and the Democrats. His letter made it appear to some reporters for other news organizations that Moore and his Democratic caucus led the charge against Sutton.

"That worked to the short-term benefit of Schoenbeck and the Republicans, by putting the spotlight on the other party. Moore was left to issue a statewide announcement Thursday clarifying that he wasn't calling on Sutton to resign.


"Now that it's partially out in the open, this matter could vibrate far beyond what did or didn't happen in Sutton's motel room in Fort Pierre, where the page was staying with his parents' permission.

"Much more significantly, the matter might turn attention to the failed Ridgefield Farms beef-processing project, and the roles of key people involved in it, as efforts for its start-up failed first in Huron and then in Flandreau.

Mercer goes on to explain that Dennis Wiese, the former Farmers Union president, was the lead figure in bringing the Ridgefield scheme to Flandreau and worked as a paid consultant for the firm. The Flandreau city council appropriated $750,000 to entice Ridgefield to Flandreau and the Flandreau Development Corp, of which Sutton was the president, gave the firm $100,000 to move its offices to Flandreau. As president of the Development Corp., Sutton sat on the board of directors of Ridgefield Farms. The Flandreau interests, led by Sutton, are trying to recoup the money provided to Ridgefield.

Mercer continues:

"Here is the connection between the page matter and the Ridgefield matter: Schoenbeck's ultimatum letter to Sutton was also sent by Schoenbeck to Wiese.

"A number of key legislators were involved in the run-up to the decision to send the ultimatum letter to Sutton.

"It has become evident in recent days they were not aware of the full background of events unfolding in Flandreau involving Wiese and Sutton.

"The story regarding the page father's complaint against Sutton could become much bigger, and much less clear cut , as more of the background and identities of the people come to light, in both the page complaint and the politics of Ridgefield in Flandreau. "

The power play, if any, involves Republicans using some fractiousness in the Democratic Party to political advantage. With a post-election special session on the horizon to investigate a sitting Democratic senator, the Republicans can hope for some votes to fall their way.

Before the June primary, we were aware that people who had worked with Wiese in the Farmers Union kept their distance from him in his run for the governor candidacy. And some routine questions about the Ridgefield Farms relationships in Huron and Flandreau were met with snarls.

But we still can't find any reference to attempts to destroy the Democratic Party, except on few blogs, whose Rorschach blots seem to have the story.

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