South Dakota Lawmakers Split Over Records Lawsuit Payment

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Top South Dakota lawmakers are feuding over whether taxpayers should pay for the state House speaker's legal defense as he faces a lawsuit for refusing to release the names of House legislators who supported a special session this year.

Sen. Lee Schoenbeck — who as pro tempore oversees the Senate's conduct — asserted in an email to legislators last week that House Speaker Spencer Gosch, a fellow Republican, should personally foot the legal bill to avoid expense to taxpayers. Gosch has replied that South Dakota statute calls for the attorney general to come to his legal defense if the state Supreme Court considers the lawsuit.

The House is set next month to meet in a special legislative session to decide whether to move forward with impeaching Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg for his conduct following a crash that killed a pedestrian last year. In the run-up, Gosch declined to release the names of lawmakers who petitioned for the session. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader and the South Dakota Newspaper Association have sued Gosch, alleging that he violated open records laws. Gosch has argued the list of lawmakers is exempt from public disclosure.

Schoenbeck, who had released the names of senators who petitioned for the session, emailed fellow legislators last week to press for a meeting of the Legislature's executive committee if Gosch intended to involve the Legislature in the legal battle.

“There is no legal basis for the Speaker’s actions and I will not support any expenditure of taxpayer funds on this behavior," he wrote in the email obtained by The Associated Press.

Gosch replied by asserting that he was acting in his official capacity as speaker when he made the decision not to release the names and he expected the attorney general to represent him if the state Supreme Court considers the lawsuit. He added that a meeting of the Legislature's Executive Board “would not be appropriate at this time” because the court has not yet indicated whether it will hear the lawsuit.

Gosch said Monday that Schoenbech “basically is just wrong on everything” in the matter.

Rep. Steve Haugaard, the previous speaker, was represented by the attorney general's office when he was sued in 2019 for barring a lobbyist from the chamber's floor. However, Haugaard had to personally pay for the lobbyist's legal fees after the two entered a settlement agreement.

Meanwhile, the media organizations are asking the Supreme Court to order the Legislature to halt plans for the special session, which is slated for Nov. 9, until the litigation is resolved.