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     Transparency: A situation or statement that is easily understood or recognized because there are no secrets connected with it or because it is expressed in a clear way. – Collins English Dictionary

Back in the day, “open government” was a rallying cry for reporters and editors, and a goal espoused by those offended by Watergate and other cover-ups that followed.

So-called sunshine laws helped the press keep a light on government intrigue, but not all information is or should be public. Private business should be private, unless it violates the law or unless tax dollars are involved. Then “transparency” – the word often heard in recent years – must be part of the equation.

It makes for interesting conflicts.

Recently, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled against reporter Bob Mercer, who tried his best to pry loose more information about Richard Benda’s death. Benda, you’ll recall, was the former Secretary of Tourism who died in the midst of an investigation into the EB-5 program, which allows foreigners to buy green cards for themselves and a route to permanent U.S. residence. Benda’s death was ruled a suicide, but a fairly tight lid was kept on information surrounding it, and when Attorney General Marty Jackley denied Mercer’s requests for more, Mercer sought relief, first from the state Office of Hearing Examiners, then the circuit court, and finally the state Supreme Court.

The court said no to Mercer, and the justices were correct. The decision really was a slam-dunk. The files Mercer sought were off limits to “the prying eyes of the press,” as some anti-open government types would describe it. There were several statutes that applied in this case, but the key one, SDCL 1-27-1.5, says records developed by law enforcement agencies are closed. As in, not open for public inspection. The words, and impact, are just as the state Legislature wanted it.

Though even Mercer would not particularly argue with the decision, he and many others in the press believe there must be some wiggle room in certain kinds of cases. The statute is so tightly worded that the lockdown on information certainly could be – and in this case, was – harmful to the public’s right to know. Details surrounding Benda’s death remain a secret.

Transparency is lacking. The public doesn’t have the whole story on a case that involves a public figure and public money.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a passionate defender of openness in government, once said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Our state, once known as the “sunshine state,” needs more of it.

May 28, 2015