For months, a city attorney investigation into the conduct of a Rapid City council member has been shrouded in mystery — with details of who was investigated and why kept from public view.
But now, the Journal has learned that the target of the investigation was Ward 1 Council Member Bill Clayton, who faced two separate sets of allegations. One complaint alleges that Clayton made racist comments to an African-American television news reporter during an interview. The other complaint centers on disparaging remarks Clayton reportedly made about fellow Ward 1 Council Member Charity Doyle in August.
In an interview this week, Clayton refused to comment about whether he made the racist remarks, but flatly denied he made disparaging remarks about Doyle.
The allegations regarding Doyle were spelled out in a written complaint obtained by the Journal. But a witness also told the paper that Clayton, while talking at a political luncheon months ago, reportedly shaped his fingers into a gun, put them to his head and said Doyle "needs to be gotten rid of in any method necessary."
Clayton, 62, said he never did that. "I will tell you, and I will say this with my hand on a Bible, I never made a gesture of a gun to my head," Clayton said.
The complaints about racist comments were independently confirmed to the Journal in off-the-record interviews with four city council members. All four confirmed the complaint focused on whether Clayton told or implied to KOTA TV reporter Taisha Walker, who is black, that she should go back to Kenya with President Barack Obama. Clayton also reportedly questioned whether Walker was an American; neither Walker not Obama are from Kenya, a mostly black African nation.
The council members would not give the exact wording of Walker's complaints against Clayton; they said they were not allowed to discuss the investigation details publicly. Walker has not spoken publicly about the allegations and did not return calls for comment.
Clayton did not want to comment on the accuracy of Walker's accusations. "Not at this time," he said this week. He added, "Taisha Walker and I put this to rest and it's somebody else trying to re-kindle it. For what purpose, I don't know."
The investigation, completed by the city attorney's office, has sent shock waves through City Hall, with council members taking sides on whether the investigation was appropriate. It also led to a spat between Mayor Sam Kooiker and Council President Bonny Petersen, who claimed the mayor lied about who performed the investigation.
City Attorney Joel Landeen used exemptions in South Dakota's open records law to deny the Journal's request to obtain the full investigative report. But Wednesday, the city's Legal & Finance Committee will discuss releasing the report to the public.
The investigation was prompted by the two complaints, and potentially others. An investigation is automatically launched when a written complaint is filed, according to the council's code of conduct.
Last month, some council members balked at the investigation of Clayton, and in a show of defiance, asked to be added as defendants who would also be investigated. Those requests were not granted.
The city council heard the full details of the investigation on Dec. 20. At the two-hour, closed-door session, Clayton appeared with attorney Patrick Duffy. The council unanimously decided to take no formal action against Clayton, such as censure, at that time.
Threatening remarks made?
One complaint filed by COMPASS Committee Chairman Pete Wernicke and two others alleges that Clayton directed an "intense, argumentative, venomous" diatribe at Doyle at an Aug. 28 luncheon of the Wingnuts, a local conservative political group.
The Journal obtained a copy of the complaint, which is also included in the attorney's office investigation report. The complaint alleges that, "Clayton ridiculed her by questioning her mental fitness to serve on the council, urged citizens to harass her ... and encouraged the public to drive/remove her from office."
Clayton denies he made such statements. He said his statements at the luncheon were carefully worded and politically correct. He denies he even mentioned Doyle's name.
"I'm not going to say what I said because at this point it's not pertinent," Clayton told the Journal. "What I said is not what they said I said."
Doyle, who recused herself from all investigation proceedings, declined to comment.
The complaint was signed by Wernicke and citizens Janet Smith and Bonnie Redden. At a city council meeting this week, Redden described additional details of the incident at the Wingnuts luncheon that she said she witnessed, but that were not included in the official complaint.
Redden, a two-time mayoral candidate, told the Journal that Clayton "in the most awful tone of voice" spoke to the approximately 20 people at the luncheon about getting rid of Doyle.
"And then to top it all off, he put his hand in a thing like a gun and put it to his head and said, 'She needs to be gotten rid of in any method necessary,'" Redden said.
Clayton reacted sharply to that claim. "Bonnie Redden is a liar. She's lying about the gun thing. She's lying about using (Doyle's) name," Clayton said.
The other two people who signed the complaint said they did not see Clayton make the gun motion. Wernicke says he was torn about whether to sign the complaint at all, since his actions as a regular citizen could potentially conflict with his role on the COMPASS committee.
A copy of the complaint, which was filed Sept. 17, was leaked to Clayton within 24 hours, according to Wernicke. He said tensions rose after that in city government.
"All the parties involved knew exactly who made the complaint, where it came from and all the details, which makes it a little hard for people to go about their daily lives when you keep crossing paths with these people," Wernicke said.
Soon, another controversy erupted over the investigation.
In December, the mayor accused the COMPASS committee of conducting investigations into council members. "It's essentially devolved into an organization that engages in witch hunts," Kooiker said in a radio interview.
Kooiker has since said he didn't know at the time COMPASS was not conducting the investigation into the council member; in fact, it was done by the city attorney. He says his logic was sound because he couldn't really know what was happening during COMPASS committee meetings, since some were held behind closed doors. The council ruled last week that all meetings should be open.
The mayor was then criticized by Petersen, who accused him of lying. Wernicke said he felt Kooiker was leveling an attack against him, though he didn't say anything at the time. Now, he calls the radio interview "nothing short of slander."
Racial comments to reporter?
Walker, the KOTA reporter, filed a formal complaint with the city in late August or early September. In it, she said Clayton told or implied to her she should go back to Kenya; he also questioned her citizenship, according to council members.
Walker is, in fact, from Queens, N.Y. and is a member of both the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications.
She was calling Clayton to ask for a comment on a contentious property tax increase when he allegedly made the racist remarks, council members confirmed. The tax had divided the city council, with Clayton firmly opposed to the increase.
Walker did not return requests for comment. But Gregory Lee, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said comments like those Clayton is accused of making would be political suicide in a larger city.
"Just because you're in a smaller pool doesn't make it right to make that statement. No one, nowhere should tolerate that sort of behavior from an elected official," Lee said.
Clayton did not specifically comment on whether he made those statements. "Reporters do their best to get quotes as accurate as possible. Generally, they're not complete and not always accurate," Clayton said.
Clayton also questioned the legality of council members leaking information contained in the report to the media. "All that was handled in confidence among council members. So some council members have chosen to break confidence and that would constitute a breach of the code of conduct."
Before the executive session in which the council heard the details of the investigation, several aldermen stood up for Clayton, even going so far as to ask they be added to the investigation. At separate meetings prior to the Dec. 20 executive session, council members John Roberts and Steve Laurenti asked to be added as co-defendants of any investigation involving a council member, with Laurenti attempting to lump himself, Roberts, Clayton and council member Ron Sasso together as co-defendants.
Neither request was granted. Those council members argued the investigation was unwarranted, and that the issue was really one of free speech.
Clayton, an auditor at the Air Force Financial Services Center at Ellsworth Air Force Base, won a seat on the council in June when he was the only candidate from his ward to submit a petition to run. Laurenti, too, won his seat unopposed.
The public may soon have a chance to read the investigation report detailing the allegations against Clayton in full. The city Legal & Finance Committee will discuss releasing the report to the public Wednesday.