- Associated Press - Friday, June 12, 2015

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - The indictment of a South Dakota man for falsely claiming he lost more than a hundred cattle during the autumn blizzard of 2013 could be the first such case from the storm, which devastated ranchers in the western part of the state.

Karl Knutson, of Vale, pleaded not guilty last month to felony counts of making a false claim and making a false statement to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A trial is scheduled for July.

The indictment alleges Knutson submitted a claim in May 2014 to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency for the loss of 129 head of cattle in the October blizzard even though he actually lost at most 13. It also claims Knutson in August 2014 told the agency in “a handwritten invoice” that he paid $135,350 for 103 head of cattle that he didn’t actually buy.

Knutson, 27, referred a request for comment Friday about the indictment to his public defender, who didn’t immediately respond to telephone messages. South Dakota U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler and a spokesman for the USDA Office of Inspector General, which investigated the case, declined to comment.

South Dakota Stockgrowers Association Executive Director Silvia Christen, who was unfamiliar with Knutson’s indictment, said she hadn’t heard of any other cases like it coming from the 2013 storm, which is estimated to have killed more than 50,000 livestock and left ranchers in the western part of the state reeling financially.

“I think we can be proud of South Dakota that we haven’t seen more of these types of cases,” Christen said.

The 2014 federal farm bill authorized federal aid for the disaster-stricken ranchers, and Christen’s group, the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota Sheepgrowers Association set up a fund that ultimately raised more than $5 million for the cause.

Joe Carley, of Philip, who estimated he lost more than 130 cows and calves to the blizzard, said the outpouring of support from the state and across the nation was “humbling.”

He said the allegations against Knutson are disappointing if they’re true. Carley received federal aid after the blizzard, and he said cases such as this could make the process more difficult for ranchers in the future.

“We pride ourselves on being honest, and a handshake means everything, you know, and that’s how we do business around here,” Carley said. “So when somebody goes and screws around with the system like that, it makes it harder for everybody else for next time.”

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