Open-records law exemptions Rounds signed into law now keep his own records private

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Four years ago, when he was governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds pushed for exemptions to a new-open records law that made more government records accessible to the public. Now, as a candidate for Senate, Rounds is taking advantage of those exemptions to keep private a variety of records from his time as governor.

Rounds has denied an open-records request filed by a Democratic group asking for the records, according to a rejection letter sent on May 7, 2013 provided to the The Daily Caller.

The records request was for “all official correspondence, including electronic, from or on behalf of Governor Marion Michael Rounds” during his time in office, “records relating to the Capitol 4th Floor renovation project and Governor’s mansion proposal,” “records relating to DUSEL (Deep Underground Science and Engineering Lab) at Homestake Mine,” “correspondence regarding inmate files,” and “monthly reports from the Office of Executive Management.”

When Rounds left office in 2011, he “asserted ownership” of his gubernatorial records, according to a 2012 Argus Leader article. The move exempted those records from the open-records law. Rounds’ predecessor, former Gov. Bill Janklow, had also asserted ownership of his records.

Rounds told the Argus Leader, which was denied a request to see the records, that he had “issued the directive for the sake of consistency, and to ensure the privacy of constituents who might have written him with personal problems.”

A subsequent bill was passed to make gubernatorial records “property of the state” and thus accessible under the open-records law.

Still, some records are exempt. After 10 years or at the time of the former governor’s death, whichever happens later, those exempt records become public. Until that point, it is the former governor’s decision whether or not to release them.

Rounds campaign manager Rob Skjonsberg explained to TheDC that the state archivist determined that the requested documents in this case were not part of the public record, and contacted Rounds to ask if he wanted to unseal them.

“So the request was sent to us, and the answer was no,” explained Skjonsberg, noting that the decision is a “perfectly legitimate position” that is “abiding by the existing law in South Dakota.”

Skjonsberg said that he expects Rounds to similarly deny all other open-records requests as the campaign carries on.

Enabling a Democratic group “to go on some kind of a hunt is not in our interest, or really something that we’re interested in helping to facilitate,” Skionsberg said. He added that while he does not expect that Rounds’ unwillingness to release the records will be a substantial problem in a Republican primary, the issue may be raised.

“I expect the Democrats to make it an issue, because that’s what they like to make an issue out of,” he said.

In the past, Rounds has been very assertive about his right to privacy. According to the Associated Press, when Rounds was running for the governorship in 2002, he said he would not release his email and phone logs if elected, because “that’s my business.”

In 2007, when Rounds was governor, the Argus Leader reported, “state officials refused to release a list of state employees and their salaries” requested by the paper.

In 2009, Rounds signed the new open-records policy into law. The old open-records law, in the words of state Sen. Al Novstroup, who has dealt with the issue frequently, was that “everything is closed to the public except for the things that the law says are open.”

The new law flipped that standard on its head: “Everything is open, except for those things that the legislature closes.”

Before the law was passed, Rounds made clear that he disagreed with a “presumption of openness,” and felt, the Associated Press reported at the time, that the new open-records law should focus on what should be protected from public record.

That thinking had an effect on the bill. According to the Argus Leader, one of the changes Rounds requested in the bill — a request to which the legislature acquiesced — was the exemption for “correspondence, memoranda, calendars or logs of appointments, working papers and records of telephone calls of public officials or employees.”

Four years later, those very exemptions that Rounds pushed for are keeping his gubernatorial record under wraps.

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Alexis Levinson