Butler defends quest to return property

Butler defends quest to return property Dick Butler by David Lias South Dakota State Treasurer Dick Butler, a Democrat, knows he can't avoid partisan politics as he runs for a second four-year term this fall.

But a topic that comes up most often when issues of his office are discussed — unclaimed property — is one that crosses party lines, he said.

Individuals who have money coming to them, be they Republican or Democrat, should receive it, he told a luncheon meeting of Clay County Democrats Wednesday.

Butler said he is proud of the work his office has accomplished in the past four years, and he credits much of the progress made in the past four years to Assistant State Treasurer Jeff Moser, who is running for Congress this year against incumbent John Thune.

"When I took office, one of the first things we did was we continued jawboning CitiBank, and lo and behold, five months later, we looked at the audit (done by former State Treasurer Homer Harding) that had been done and it said they owed another $250,000. Five months later, they came to the door with $1.1 million."

Butler said Moser has overhauled the treasury operation of his office, including the public deposit commission.

"He brought banks into compliance, and one of the things Jeff did was stop corresponding with 11 banks that didn't exist," Butler said. "We also bid out our primary bank relationship with the state. That hadn't been done in 14 years, and we changed banks. We have a new banking relationship and it's been doing a good job."

Transition audit

Butler said he ordered a transition audit after he took over as state treasurer. "We found a real mess. They (auditors) spent about three months in the office, and another two months before they issued a report, and it was shocking."

Butler said the audit report had 34 recommendations and 19 findings.

"Among the things going on in the office was the use of blank counter checks, they had lost track of thousands of names, and when you totaled up the amount of money with the lost names that were there, you had $2.7 million left over," Butler said.

The treasurer's office has returned over $1 million to its rightful owners in the past year.

"Next week, we are giving back $220,000 to a man in Rapid City; we gave $300,000 to the grandchildren of a man and woman who had died, their father had died, their mother was struggling with these children and her circumstances, and that was their money. That money belonged to those children from their grandparents."

Butler said he is proud of the hard work his staff has accomplished to find the rightful recipients of unclaimed property.

"I was told by existing staff when I first came that if they don't make the claim, they don't get the money. We don't do anything extra for anybody.

"Well, tell that to those children," he added. "I'm sure they'd like the state of South Dakota to have that money as opposed to their children."

Butler said his office has paid more money out to its rightful owners in four years than his predecessor did in 20 years.

"We also collected more in four years than our predecessors did in 20 years," Butler said.

Stripped of power

After accomplishing all of that, the state lawmakers passed a law that more or less strips Butler's office of much of its power.

"Having done all of that, the Legislature passed a law to take the division (of unclaimed property) away from us," Butler said. South Dakota voters will be asked in November to either approve or disapprove the Legislature's action.

"It's Referred Law No. 2, and it will be on the ballot this fall," he said. "I hope you vote no. We've done our job."

Along with the Legislature's ruling also came a gag order which means Butler must be careful as he speaks about issues involving his campaign during his re-election campaign.

"The gag law is sold this way: You can't have a public official beating up on an individual, slandering him, harming the reputation of the business that they've labored a lifetime to acquire," Butler said.

Call for end of gag rule

In his opinion, such a law isn't needed.

"If an elected constitutional officer is in fact doing that sort of thing (slandering individuals) I think the people will get to it, and get to him in the next election. They'll make that judgement. That's their call."

Butler added that he believes that some South Dakota firms, such as CitiBank, are in the public sector and in the public arena.

"This is a fact. Their (CitiBank's) chief executive officer is the governor's former chief of staff," Butler said. "Their lawyer is also a former chief of staff of the governor.

"CitiBank is in play. They put themselves in play," Butler added. "They complain that they've been singled out. They singled themselves out before I ever came on the scene. They singled themselves out for special treatment for a quiet, private preferential deal that no one else had, and got it. Well, we singled them out again for equal treatment. That doesn't taste so good."

Butler said he hopes that voters make their judgements this fall at the ballot box based on his office's accomplishments.

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