Mystery surrounds funding for billboards attacking legislators
Steve Haugaard’s name is appearing on billboards across Sioux Falls.
That's typical in an election year. The Republican is a veteran politician.
But this new billboard asks what Haugaard is trying to hide, and it suggests a call to action to impeach South Dakota's attorney general.
“It sure looks to me like D.C. politics,” Haugaard says. “The people of South Dakota deserve a lot better than that.”
Haugaard is running against Gov. Kristi Noem for the Republican nomination. He’s also sitting on an impeachment inquiry investigating Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s conduct following a fatal car crash in September of 2020. The billboards also target other members of the impeachment inquiry.
Haugaard says the billboards are not productive or persuasive.
“Unless somebody is trying to intimidate the people involved,” Haugaard says. “And that’s a sad commentary on what their goals are.”
The nonprofit behind the billboards is called Dakota Institute for Legislative Solutions.
The group spent $24,000 on the billboards and targeted four other state lawmakers.
Dakota Institute for Legislative Solutions says it’s a 501c(4) nonprofit formed to advocate for issues, frame debates to advance conservative principles, and generate support for Gov. Noem’s agenda.
Rob Burgess is the executive director of the new organization. Burgess has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
It’s not Burgess’ first foray into South Dakota politics—he did communications for the state GOP during the 2014 U.S. Senate campaign.
It’s not clear who is funding the group, despite state law intended to make such groups disclose their top five donors.
The group says it has an $800,000 operating budget for this calendar year, and $1.5 million for the next two years.
But one lawmaker says state residents might never know who is behind the group.
That’s because in 2021, the governor’s office supported successful legislation dealing with nonprofits. The new laws protect the privacy of nonprofit donors and prohibit the government from taking certain actions to expose them.
“I’m not surprised to see that this has happened after the law went into effect a year ago," says state Rep. Ryan Cwach, who is also on the impeachment inquiry. “I think it was what a minority of us in the Legislature said was going to happen.”
The Noem administration relied on Mark Miller to shepherd one of the nonprofit bills through the Legislature. He was the governor’s legal counsel at the time and is now chief of staff. Prior to arriving in Pierre, Miller worked in Florida for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has advocated for nonprofit donor privacy.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office says nothing about last year’s legislation conflicts with or changes existing campaign finance laws, or required disclosures under those laws.
However, Cwach—who is a Democrat from Yankton—says the new laws conflict with a campaign finance reform package passed into law just over five years ago.
“There are disclosures about your contributors that you have to make. That’s something South Dakota voters demanded with Initiated Measure 22 back in 2016," Cwach says. "[Dakota Institute for Legislative Solutions] clearly disclose that they spent the money, but they would not disclose who their contributors were and who were involved.”
One national campaign finance watchdog says states across the country are passing nonprofit privacy laws like the new ones in South Dakota.
Patrick Llewellyn is the director of state campaign finance with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
“Unless the law requires it, politically active nonprofits are unlikely to disclose where their money is coming from. That illustrates the problem,” Llewellyn says. “Instead of ensuring that voters know who is spending big money to influence their votes, these types of laws do the opposite and mandate secrecy for nonprofits.”
Secretary of State Steve Barnett says his office is looking into the billboard campaign. The Minnehaha County State Attorney’s Office is also investigating.