Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.) was charged Friday with second-degree manslaughter following an Aug. 16 automobile accident that left a motorcyclist dead, fueling speculation that he will resign prior to the 2004 elections.
Manslaughter is the most serious of the four charges against Janklow, bringing with it the possibility of up to 10 years in jail and a $10,000 fine. He also faces three misdemeanors. If convicted of reckless driving, Janklow could spend up to one year in prison and be docked $1,000. The two other charges of running a stop sign and speeding carry less jail time and smaller financial penalties.
Janklow was traveling between 70 and 75 miles per hour when he ran a stop sign and the Cadillac he was driving struck and killed Randy Scott, according to police reports.
The former four-term governor, who fractured his hand and was briefly unconscious as a result of the accident, has not appeared publicly since the crash. He was not available for comment Friday.
Most South Dakota Republican political observers were shocked by Moody County Prosecutor Bill Ellingson’s decision to bring felony charges against Janklow, and they predicted it would likely end the Congressman’s political career.
“A misdemeanor might have been survivable from a political standpoint, but a felony is not,” said one South Dakota Republican.
A poll conducted last week by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. found that 50 percent of those tested thought Janklow should resign if charged and convicted. Only 25 percent said Janklow should continue his term under those circumstances, while 12 percent said he should run for re-election if found guilty.
The same poll showed that 57 percent thought Janklow should not immediately resign, while 23 percent thought he should step down prior to being charged or standing trial.
The survey was in the field Aug. 26 and 27 — prior to the charges being brought — and tested 400 likely voters with a 5 percent margin of error.
Regardless of public opinion, Janklow could run into practical problems if found guilty of manslaughter.
“Convicted felons are not allowed to vote in the House, and that means if convicted he would not be able to carry out the most basic duties of a Congressman,” said a state Republican observer.
House rules urge — but do not require — that any lawmaker convicted of a felony “should refrain” from casting votes.
The provision doesn’t flatly stop a convicted lawmaker from voting, but last year the House ethics committee issued an unusually blunt warning to then-Rep. James Traficant after the Ohio Democrat was convicted of bribery, racketeering and other corruption charges.
With Traficant boasting that he would return to vote, the committee threatened immediate action against him if he attempted to cast a ballot on the floor. Traficant backed down, averting a constitutional crisis over the power to deny a duly elected lawmaker the right to cast votes.
A felony conviction of Janklow would automatically trigger a Committee on Standards of Official Conduct investigation, which could lead to punishment by the House in the form of reprimand, censure, fines or expulsion.
In the event Janklow resigns, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) has 10 days to announce the date for a special election, which would then be held 80 to 90 days after the formal vacancy is declared.
The candidates for the special election would then be chosen by each party’s state central committee.
Already overtures have been made to 2002 nominee Stephanie Herseth (D) and former Rep. John Thune (R).
Herseth lost to Janklow 53 percent to 46 percent in 2002 but ran a solid campaign. She has a long political lineage in South Dakota as her father was a leader in the state Senate and her grandfather was governor. Herseth was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Kori Bernards said it would be “inappropriate to comment on anything political,” adding: “This is a tough time for both the Scott family and the Janklow family.”
Thune, who held the state’s at-large House seat from 1996 to 2002, was recruited by the White House into last year’s Senate race, which he lost by 524 votes to Sen. Tim Johnson (D).
Prior to the Janklow incident, Thune was seen as a likely candidate against Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004.
One Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that GOPers “have reached out to John Thune and he is taking a serious look at the [House] race.”
Some Republican sources argue that Thune does not relish another bruising Senate campaign, especially against a well-funded and aggressive Daschle, and would see a return to the House as an easier way to prolong his political career.
But there are also a number of sources close to Thune who reject the idea he is looking for a way out of a Senate race that most polling shows within the margin of error.
In fact, the first independent poll in the race — conducted by Mason-Dixon — showed Daschle with just a 48 percent to 46 percent edge. The survey was set to be released Sunday in the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader.
Other Republicans mentioned for the House seat are state Sen. Larry Diedrich, who ran briefly in 2002, and and former state Sen. Barb Everist.
Although speculation is rampant about the myriad possible political moves, one sentiment has clearly emerged: The accident and subsequent charges are likely to be the final chapter in Janklow’s long and storied political career.
First elected state attorney general in 1974, Janklow went on to win the governor’s office four years later. He was easily re-elected in 1982 with 71 percent.
Term limited out of the job in 1986, he ran a primary challenge to Sen. Jim Abdnor (R), which he lost 55 percent to 45 percent. Abdnor went on to lose the general election to Daschle.
In 1994, Janklow again ran for governor and won; he subsequently won a fourth term in 1998.
Most thought that would end his career, but after a longtime political rival, former Sen. Larry Pressler (R), appeared likely to win the Republican nomination for the open House seat, Janklow entered the race and cruised to a victory.
Even before the accident, Janklow, who has been beset by health problems over the past several years, had said publicly he wasn’t sure whether he would retire, seek a second House term or run for the Senate.
In 1998, he was hospitalized for three weeks for intestinal surgery; the next year doctors removed his spleen and portions of his pancreas. Earlier this year, Janklow was on the verge of undergoing heart bypass surgery but decided against the procedure.
Damon Chappie contributed to this report.