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Fatal Accident Could Be Undoing of Lawmaker

South Dakota's Janklow thrives on power, but his hard-charging ways may have caught up to him.

August 22, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

BRANDON, S.D. — A former state attorney general and four-term governor, Republican Rep. William J. Janklow is known among South Dakotans for his dictatorial but effective political style -- a manner that has earned him vocal supporters and lifelong opponents. He is also known for driving fast and getting into car accidents.

After allegedly running a stop sign at 70 miles an hour on a rural road last weekend, striking and killing a 55-year-old motorcyclist, the rural state's only congressman may be facing the end of his political career, and more.

The state, meanwhile, could face the loss of one of its most influential politicians of the last 30 years -- one who counts President Bush among his friends.

The Moody County state's attorney is deciding whether to file charges against 63-year-old Janklow in the accident, which occurred Saturday afternoon just north of his home in this small town outside Sioux Falls, not far from the border with Minnesota. Janklow's son Russ Janklow has said his father expects charges to be forthcoming.

Alcohol or drugs do not appear to have been a factor in the crash, according to state police, meaning Janklow cannot be charged with vehicular homicide -- which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison -- in the death of farmer and volunteer firefighter Randolph Scott of Hardwick, Minn. Janklow could, however, face as much as 10 years behind bars if convicted of manslaughter.

"This is a tragedy in every possible way, for the motorcyclist's family and for the state," said longtime Janklow critic Steve Emery, a former tribal attorney for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and now a vice president at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. "It's tragic for South Dakota because, interestingly, when he went to Washington, Janklow was really interested in his constituents and was trying to put some issues in the past, letting bygones be bygones, with Indians and others."

Janklow, who began his first term in Congress in January, could continue to serve while the matter is pending -- even if he is charged. If he steps down, or if he is convicted, a special election will likely be held.

During 16 years as governor, Janklow became such a powerful figure that, come election time, he hardly needed his own party apparatus, preferring to campaign through friends, allies and a cult of curt personality. President Bush campaigned on his behalf last year as Janklow sought to make the move from the governor's office to member of Congress.

In January 2001, just-elected Bush visited the state. Said then-Gov. Janklow: "While the last president took seven years to come to South Dakota, this one took seven weeks to come to South Dakota."

Nearly everyone in the state seems not only to know his name but to have an opinion on Janklow -- and seldom is that opinion mottled with gray areas.

"There is not much 'in between' when it comes to Rep. Janklow," said Bob Burns, head of the political science department at South Dakota State University in Brookings and a longtime friend of Janklow. "You either love him or you don't like him at all. He actually doesn't like people to dislike him, but he knows they do and he's not willing to change his style to keep everybody happy."

He has also been unwilling to drive cautiously -- he has been involved in several accidents and racked up well over a dozen speeding tickets since 1990.

In 1993 alone, he was involved in three accidents, and each time told police he had been distracted by or swerved to avoid another car, according to reports.

Following Saturday's fatal crash, he told police he had swerved to avoid another car, although no other car is listed on police reports.

Janklow's story is a winding one, that of a youngster who nearly became a societal outcast but instead grew into a man with exceptional influence who never let go of the head-butting style of his youth -- indeed, who seemed to hold onto that part of his personality.

Born in Chicago in 1939, following World War II he moved with his family to Germany, where his father was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. When his father died in 1950, his mother moved Janklow and his five siblings to the small town of Flandreau, S.D., about an hour northeast of Sioux Falls.

As a teenager, he had a knack for finding trouble, and at 16 was charged with assault and given a choice: face juvenile detention or join the military. He dropped out of high school and joined the Marines.

"I entered the Marines as a smart-aleck boy and was honorably discharged as a man," he told author Jim Soyer in a book called "Over a Century of Leadership."

In 1960, he enrolled at the University of South Dakota, and six years later the high school dropout departed with a law degree. His first job was with the South Dakota Legal Services System, representing Native Americans on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

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