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Janklow Mystery Persists

In First Public Remarks, Refuses to Discuss Political Future or Accident

In his first public remarks since an August automobile accident that left a man dead, Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.) on Monday offered few details about his political future.

“I don’t know what’s appropriate at this time,” Janklow said at a Sioux Falls news conference. “There are things more important than politics.”

Janklow, who prior to his election to the House in 2002 served 16 years as the Mount Rushmore State’s governor, refused to discuss the details of the Aug. 16 crash that killed motorcyclist Randy Scott, and chose instead to focus on his own health concerns as a result of the crash.

He repeatedly said he did not want to “maximize” his own problems before going into intimate details about his lingering ailments, including limited movement in his toes as well as a stuttering problem.

“It appears to be an effort to build public sympathy,” explained one Republican source familiar with the state’s politics.

Janklow, 64, also struggled to remember the name of a House colleague who had offered him words of support when he returned to the House floor last week for the first time since the crash.

He mentioned Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) but stumbled when trying to recall the name of Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.).

Janklow also backed away from questions concerning the legal charges stemming from the incident. He is scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing on Thursday that will determine whether a trial is required.

Janklow was charged with a felony count of second-degree manslaughter and three misdemeanors after prosecutors determined he had run a stop sign while speeding.

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.

Janklow’s indecision about his next political step will do little to put to rest rumors that the former governor will either resign his House seat in the near future or retire at the end of his first term.

Janklow said he has had only one political conversation since the accident, and that was with former South Dakota Republican Party Chairman and longtime confidant Joel Rosenthal. The Congressman did not reveal what was discussed.

He also hinted that he may not make a decision on his next political step until his legal problems run their course.

“Until the legal stuff is over, South Dakotans are the jury,” Janklow said.

To this point, the state’s voters appear content to wait out the results of the trial before deciding whether Janklow should step down.

In a poll at the end of August by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., only 23 percent said Janklow should immediately resign, while 57 percent said he should not.

If Janklow is convicted, however, public opinion changes drastically, according to the survey.

In that scenario, 50 percent believe Janklow should resign, 26 percent think he should retire after this term and 12 percent think he should seek re-election to the House.

In the event Janklow chooses resignation, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) would have 10 days to officially declare a vacancy. The special election would take place between 80 and 90 days after the formal announcement.

The likely Democratic nominee would be Stephanie Herseth, who took 46 percent against Janklow in 2002.

Herseth is now executive director at the South Dakota Farmers Union Foundation and is reportedly interested in running for Congress again. She did not return a call seeking comment Monday.

The most obvious GOP candidate is former Rep. John Thune, who held the at-large House seat from 1996 to 2002. He vacated it for an unsuccessful run for Senate last year.

Thune is much more interested in challenging Sen. Tom Daschle (D) in 2004, according to Republican sources, but House Republicans believe he may be convinced to run for his old seat.

If not, a number of names are mentioned, including state Sen. Larry Diedrich, former state Sen. Barb Everist and attorney Mark Mickelson.

Damon Chappie contributed to this report.

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