- Associated Press - Monday, May 12, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley was correct in withholding investigative records into the death of a former state economic development director, a state administrative board has ruled.

Richard Benda was found dead in October in a grove of trees near Lake Andes with a fatal shotgun wound. His death was ruled a suicide.

Jackley in November released the forensic pathologist’s findings and a summary of his office’s investigation.

He agreed to allow Aberdeen American News reporter Bob Mercer, whose work appears in several other South Dakota newspapers, and one other journalist to review a partially redacted version of the file, but only if a member of Benda’s immediate family granted written permission. None of Benda’s immediate family members gave permission.

Mercer appealed Jackley’s decision to the Office of Hearing Examiners, which ruled that state statutes preclude disclosure of the death investigation as developed or received by law enforcement agencies. The decision was released Monday.

“I have worked to inform the public of the cause and manner of the tragic death of Richard Benda, as well as our uncovering of financial misconduct,” Jackley said in a statement. “I am pleased that the Hearing Examiner has recognized both the protections provided by our laws and a family’s privacy.

Mercer could not immediately be reached for comment.

The office says its decisions can be appealed to the circuit court within 30 days.

After leaving his state job, Benda became a loan monitor for SDRC Inc., which recruited foreign investors for the failed Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen and other projects in the state.

A state investigation found that $550,000 of a $1 million state grant given to Northern Beef for construction and equipment costs was improperly diverted to SDRC Inc. to pay EB-5 immigration loan monitoring fees.

Northern Beef opened on a limited basis in 2012 after years of delays, but the company filed for bankruptcy protection in July because it lacked money to buy cattle for slaughter. White Oak Global Advisors bought the plant at auction with a winning $44.3 million credit-and-cash bid.

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