From being mistakenly accused of sexual misconduct to asking an intern to pick up Nutri-Grain bars at Costco, Billie Sutton's emails reveal the alternately fascinating and tedious life of a legislator.
Sutton is a Democratic state senator from Burke who is seeking the party’s nomination for governor. He recently released two weeks’ worth of correspondence from his state government email account in response to an Oct. 23 request from the Rapid City Journal.
The request was inspired by Sutton’s ultimately defeated legislative attempt to open government emails to public scrutiny in South Dakota. The Journal also asked the other declared candidates for governor to divulge their emails, but none has delivered.
It took nearly four months for Sutton to release his emails. To make the Journal's open-ended request manageable, Sutton said, he decided to select and review two weeks' worth of emails. He selected a two-week period in January 2017, which was during that year's legislative session.
His review led him to withhold seven emails that he said were subject to legal restrictions preventing their release. Another six email senders had marked their messages as confidential, Sutton said, but he withheld emails from only two of those senders after the other four granted permission for their emails to be released.
The end result was the release of a combined 373 messages from Sutton's inbox, sent folder, junk folder and other self-created folders.
Sutton said his review of the emails was laborious and led him to realize that if emails are ever legally designated as public records in South Dakota, release requests may need to be limited to emails addressing specific topics or emails involving specific senders or receivers. But he remains committed to changing state law to make government emails available to the public, he said.
Most of the emails Sutton released consisted of correspondence with people urging him to support or oppose legislation. In nearly every case, Sutton replied with his position on the legislation.
“I just think that as a public servant, that’s one of the things you sign up for,” he said in a Journal interview.
Other correspondence covered topics as varied as draft legislation that was never introduced, the entertainment for the Burke Stampede Rodeo, and a strategy session by a county Democratic Party.
Following are examples of Sutton’s correspondence that were particularly interesting, offbeat or representative of recurring topics.
Mistaken for other Sutton
Markus Patterson, whose message did not say where he is from, emailed Sutton on the day that Rep. Mathew Wollmann, R-Madison, resigned amid a sex with interns scandal.
“In light on the sexual situation that Senator Wollman had with Legislature Interns and his decision to resign, I would ask in light of past allegations, I think you should show character and resign as well,” Patterson wrote to Sutton. “We need to hold our government officials to a VERY high standard. Thank you.”
Sutton guessed that Patterson had him confused with Dan Sutton, who resigned from the Legislature in 2006 following accusations of inappropriate behavior with a male page.
“I think you have contacted the wrong individual as I have never had these types of allegations against me,” Billie Sutton wrote in his reply to Patterson. “There was a Dan Sutton that went through these issues several years ago on the legislature but we are no relation. Thank you for your time.”
Arriana Belkin, associate legislative director of State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a nonprofit devoted to advancing progressive causes in the states, emailed Sutton about an effort to resist the Trump administration’s agenda.
“We’re working to coordinate a multi-state effort to push back on the Trump administration’s first 100 days agenda,” Belkin wrote, “by advancing a progressive counter-narrative centered around policies to support working families.”
Sutton replied with an email thanking Belkin for her message and explaining that Democratic legislators in South Dakota were “already headed down the road of a better economic message for the working class and working poor.” He went on to explain some proposed Democratic legislation and arranged a time to speak with Belkin by phone.
Sutton received opposing emails about Senate Bill 61, which was a bill to update, revise and repeal certain provisions relating to nurse practitioners and nurse midwives.
“This bill will modernize our state’s nursing practice act, benefitting the rural citizens of our state by increasing access to healthcare,” wrote Korie Pravecek, a certified family nurse practitioner from Winner.
Cynthia Clark, a doctor from Winner, took the opposite position.
“As a member of the South Dakota State Medical Association, I ask you to oppose SB 61, which would permit advanced practice nurse practitioners to practice without the clinical supervision of physicians,” Clark wrote.
Sutton received numerous additional emails about the bill. It passed 35-0 in the Senate with Sutton’s “yes” vote and was signed into law by the governor.
Between emails about legislative matters, Sutton took time to write a 422-word email to the Burke Riding Club explaining why the club’s preferred entertainer for the annual Burke Stampede Rodeo — “Danger Dave” — had backed out. Sutton proposed the hiring of David “Hippie” Engelkes as a substitute and sought votes by email from other club members.
Susan Finazzo and Jaclyn Reeves-Pepin, of the National Association of Biology Teachers, wrote to urge a “no” vote on Senate Bill 55, a vaguely worded bill that was interpreted by some as an attempt to allow the teaching of religion as science.
“The wording of this legislation clearly allows non-scientific explanations for scientific topics to be inappropriately introduced into the science classroom,” Finazzo and Reeves-Pepin wrote.
Wade Pogany, executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, also wrote to urge opposition to the bill.
“If we allow science teachers to bring in their own views contrary to the curriculum set by the school board we will get sued,” Pogany wrote. “My fear is a teacher who wishes to bring in prohibited curriculum could put a school district in jeopardy of litigation.”
Sutton voted “no” on the bill, but it passed the Senate 23-12. The bill later died in a House committee.
Frank James, staff director of Dakota Rural Action, copied Sutton on an email to state Sen. Jason Frerichs, D-Wilmot, in which James invited Frerichs for a drink in Pierre to meet Dakota Rural Action’s then-new lobbyist, Rebecca Terk. Frerichs accepted by email and copied Sutton on the reply, but Sutton did not respond until after the get-together had happened.
“I did meet your lobbyist the other day on the elevator,” Sutton wrote. “Please accept my sincere apology for not responding sooner. I hope all is well and please take care.”
Jim Dahlberg, of Hot Springs, was one of several people to email Sutton with criticisms of a proposed state-federal land swap that would have resulted in the creation of a state park in Spearfish Canyon.
“It will be a taxpayer disaster,” Dahlberg wrote. “Leave these beautiful landmarks as they are with no ‘improvements.’”
Sutton replied that he, too, opposed the swap. It ultimately fell apart under the weight of public opposition.
Inmates and pheasants
State Rep. Burt Tulson, R-Lake Norden, emailed Sutton and numerous other state officials with an idea to boost pheasant numbers.
“Would it be possible to start a program of inmates raising pheasants and releasing them on state lands that are open to the public?” Tulson wrote. “Just an idea to help our hunting income and allowing more pheasants on public land. Know it would be costly to set up but in the long run would be great for our great state of SDak.”
In a recent interview, Sutton said the idea has not received any action.
The CPR lobby
David A. Nagelhout, an American College of Cardiology governor for South Dakota and president of the North Central Heart Institute in Sioux Falls, wrote Sutton to propose mandated CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) training in high schools.
“35 states currently have laws mandated CPR and AED training in High School,” Nagelhout wrote. “Michigan just passed a law last month. I think South Dakota should have a similar law proposed this year.”
A bill to that effect was introduced a couple of weeks later. The bill passed the Senate with the support of Sutton and all 32 of the other senators who voted on it, and it was also passed by the House and signed into law by the governor.
Copays and contraceptives
Amy Kelley-Osdoba, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Sioux Falls, emailed Sutton to praise the the role of the Affordable Care Act (known as the ACA or “Obamacare”) in helping to reduce teenage pregnancies by expanding non-copay insurance coverage of contraceptives.
She also informed Sutton that she was working with state Rep. Dan Ahlers, D-Dell Rapids, to draft legislation protecting against out-of-pocket costs for contraception in the event of a repeal or amendments to the ACA.
Sutton replied, “Thank you for contacting me on this issue. I think it is a great idea and one that I would absolutely support. Let me know how I can help and if Dan would be the prime sponsor in the house I would be glad to be the prime sponsor in the Senate or work to find someone to be the prime sponsor in the Senate.”
Sutton said in a recent interview that Ahlers never introduced the bill.
State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, forwarded Sutton two draft bills that the Legislative Research Council prepared for Nesiba. Neither bill was introduced during the 2017 session, according to a recent interview with Sutton.
One bill would have automatically registered people to vote when they renew their driver’s licenses or identification cards, unless they declined.
The other bill would have prohibited employers from requiring tipped employees to share tips. That bill was attached to an email from Nesiba to Sutton in which Nesiba wrote only, “I’m thinking about this.”
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Sutton replied, “I have thought about this before. Interesting concept.”
Ahead of a news conference with the Democratic legislative leaders, Sutton received two pages of talking points apparently written by the South Dakota Democratic Party’s communications director. The talking points consisted of bulleted facts and statistics under topical headings including prekindergarten education, sick leave, family leave and an ethical investigation that was being conducted at that time into the conduct of then-Rep. Mathew Wollmann, R-Madison, who eventually resigned after admitting to sexual contact with college-age interns.
Cory Allen Heidelberger, writer of the Dakota Free Press blog in Aberdeen, asked Sutton to oppose Senate Bill 59.
The original version of the bill included two sections: one to push the effective date of voter-approved statewide ballot measures to July 1, rather than the day after the canvassing of the election; and another section that proposed adding this language to state law: “An initiated measure proposed by the electors of the state is subject to the same constitutional requirements that apply to any measure proposed by the Legislature.”
Heidelberger focused on the second section.
“Section 2 thus appears to require that all initiated measures also receive two readings in each chamber of the Legislature, majority approval in the Legislature, and the signature of the Governor to become law,” Heidelberger wrote. “Section 2 thus runs counter to Amendment A, passed by the voters in 1988, which removed the Legislature completely from the process of approving initiated measures.”
Dozens of other individuals emailed Sutton, all within a span of a couple of days, with similar concerns about the bill. All of them received at least a brief reply from Sutton alerting them to his opposition to the legislation.
Section 2 was ultimately stripped out of the bill, leaving just the language about pushing the effective date of ballot measures to July 1. Sutton voted against the bill in that form, but it passed the Senate 28-7 and was ultimately passed by the House and signed into law by the governor.
Sutton received numerous invites to interest-group events, including a military ball (Sutton replied with his menu choice of roast sirloin of beef), a Democratic Party Lobbyist Celebration, a South Dakota FFA Breakfast, and lunch with the Dakota Valley Business Council.
Crossing the aisle
State Sen. Stace Nelson, a Republican from Fulton, sent an email to the Democratic Senate leaders — Minority Leader Sutton, Assistant Minority Leader Troy Heinert and Minority Whip Jason Frerichs — seeking their help to force the funding for a proposed animal disease research and diagnostic laboratory at South Dakota State University to come from a governor-controlled pot of economic development money called the Future Fund.
“Take a look at this and please help me in getting this drafted properly,” Nelson wrote. “I want every dime to come out of the governor's slush funds.”
Further correspondence ensued among Sutton, Frerichs and Nelson. But the bill ended up passing into law with funding from an increase in the general education tax levy on agricultural property. Nelson voted against the final version of the bill, while Sutton, Heinert and Frerichs voted for it.
National media inquiries
Amber Phillips, a staff writer for The Fix, a feature of The Washington Post, arranged an interview with Sutton about Republican legislative attempts to repeal Initiated Measure 22, an anti-corruption measure approved by voters in 2016.
Further email correspondence showed that Phillips also sought an interview with state Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls. One email string includes a message from Nesiba seeking and receiving talking points for the interview from a Democratic legislative intern.
Sutton also received an inquiry about the IM22 repeal from Brad Mielke, a radio correspondent for ABC News. Additionally, numerous members of the public and various groups emailed Sutton to encourage his opposition to the repeal.
The ‘cowboy caucus’
On the morning of Jan. 25, 2017, Heartland Consumers Power District’s communications manager, Ann Hyland, emailed Sutton seeking his support of Senate Bill 60. The bill was an attempt to relieve the organization of a legal restriction limiting its sale of assets to rural electric associations, cooperatives and municipal systems.
Later that morning, the CEO of Heartland Consumers Power District, Russell Olson, who is a former legislator, emailed Sutton and offered to answer questions about the bill.
That afternoon, the bill passed the Senate 34-1 with a “yes” vote from Sutton.
The next day, Olson emailed Sutton to ask if the “cowboy caucus” wanted to join him for a social outing in February, to which Sutton responded favorably. Olson identified the members of the cowboy caucus as Sutton; Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission; Sen. Jason Frerichs, D-Wilmot; and Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel.
When TransCanada applied for a presidential permit for its Keystone XL crude-oil pipeline, which would pass through South Dakota, a government relations employee for the company sent Sutton an email explaining the application. The email included the employee’s cellphone number and an invitation to call with any questions or discussion.
Gun group in junk mail
Among the 33 items in Sutton’s junk mail folder were 19 emails from the National Association for Gun Rights, all of which appeared to be mass emails rather than person-to-person correspondence, and at least seven emails from individual members of the public that appeared to have been unintentionally filtered out of Sutton’s inbox.
Travis Lasseter, of New Underwood, who made a failed run for the state House as a Republican in 2016, emailed Sutton four questions about gun laws. Sutton sent his replies four days later.
The questions and answers are combined below.
Lasseter: Do you support our current open carry laws for all who are in our state?
Lasseter: Do you support our current Concealed Carry Weapons permit and process, and are you aware of any issues with it? Why or why not?
Sutton: Yes. I am not aware of any issues with it. I believe the current process is working well and I have not heard complaints from constituents.
Lasseter: Do you support the expanded permit and process, and are you aware of any issues with it? Why or why not?
Sutton: Yes, I am not aware of any issues with it. I like the expanded reciprocity as well as the increased training for handgun use.
Lasseter: Do you support the Gold permit and the process, and are you aware of any issues with it? Why or why not?
Sutton: Yes, I am not aware of any issues with it. I like the recognition by at least one other state. I am also under the impression that other states could recognize this permit in the future.
Democratic legislative intern Kelcy Schaunaman emailed Sutton with this offer: “I will be going to Costco this weekend so let me know if there are any particular snacks/drinks that you would like me to get.”
Sutton replied, “Nutri-grain bars would be good. Any kind is fine. Thank you!”
Sutton forwarded three pages of notes from a planning meeting of the Gregory County Democrats, where attendees apparently discussed the lessons Democrats could learn from the 2016 general election in which Donald Trump was elected president.
Entries under the heading “What is the takeway from this election?” included “Need to care about middle class and too much of a focus on minorities.” Another entry under that heading was, “People are tired of being called racists whether they are or not. People think Obama made racism worse. Tired of Political Correctness. Tied Obama to Hillary and establishment and a continuation of his policies.”
One of the entries under the heading “What are the goals of the county party?” was “Beat Lee Qualm.” That was a reference to Rep. Lee Qualm, R-Platte, who is currently the House majority leader.
A sender named Mike Livingston forwarded an auto-reply message he had received from state Sen. Ernie Otten, R-Tea.
“Thank you for contacting me,” the auto-reply from Otten said. “Due to the high number of emails I receive, it's not possible to answer every one. Be assured, however, that I read every email and thoughtfully consider each of them.”
Sutton’s reaction was uncharacteristically scathing.
“That is a ridiculous response," Sutton wrote of the auto-reply. "I respond to every email even out of district. I have received all the same or more emails than senator Otten. I am minority leader, on state affairs, and approps which meets from 7:15 to 12 everyday and I still find time to respond. That is a complete cop out. Do not let him get away with it and make him respond to you with his stance and justification of the issue. Thanks!”
At the end of an email string about legislative procedure between Sutton and Democratic former legislator Frank Kloucek, of Scotland, S.D., Kloucek lightened the mood with a question about kolaches.
When Kloucek was in the Legislature, he made a failed attempt to have the kolache (a Czech pastry alternately spelled as “kolace”) designated as the state dessert or state pastry.
Kloucek asked Sutton, "What is your favorite kolace flavor?"
“Apple!” Sutton replied.