Democrats Raise Ethical Concerns Over GOP Donor's $1 Million Funding of Border Deployment

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Soldiers install concertina wire along the Mexico border.
Soldiers work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Hidalgo, TX., port of entry, installing concertina wire along the Mexico border in support of Operation Faithful Patriot, November 2, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/SrA Alexandra Minor)

A billionaire's $1 million donation to fund a South Dakota National Guard mission to the U.S.-Mexico border has raised questions of whether the military is effectively for hire, and Democrats in the state are investigating the legality of the issue, Military.com has learned.

Willis and Reba Johnson's Foundation, helmed by billionaire Willis Johnson, pledged $1 million to South Dakota to cover the estimated cost of deploying some 50 guardsmen to the border for up to two months, according to a state government email reviewed by Military.com.

Ian Fury, a spokesman for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, initially refused to disclose the donation amount, citing "security concerns."

Noem's office pointed to two state laws that staff say make the donation legal, 5-24-12 and 33-12-30, which covers gifts to the governor and state. The former statute states that the governor can accept a grant or a gift, "only after determining that it is in the best interest of the state to do so." The latter states that the governor has the authority to accept a private gift on behalf of the state. Others, however, have said the language of the laws is vague, and that military missions can't be funded by such a "gift."

"I've read the statutes, it's very vague, it's a huge concern of mine. It's sketchy ... it's very loose. I think we're treading pretty loosely here," Democratic State House member Linda Duba, who serves on the South Dakota appropriations committee, told Military.com. "You can give land to the state, you can give money and you're usually doing it for philanthropy. But this is a military mission."

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Johnson is the founder of Copart, an online vehicle auction service, and has amassed a $2.2 billion fortune, according to Forbes. He resigned as CEO of Copart in 2010, according to reporting from the Nashville Post.

He is a Republican mega-donor, donating at least $1.5 million to conservative causes, including $50,000 to the "Trump Victory" political action committee. Reached by telephone, Johnson declined to be interviewed by Military.com.

Military.com talked to six state-level Democratic elected officials who are raising the alarm over the legality of a private donor funding a military mission, especially given that South Dakota has no budget concerns. It's unclear why the state isn't covering the cost of the mission itself.

The state's Democratic senate minority leader, Troy Heinert, told Military.com that members of his party in the state legislature were not informed ahead of time that the Guard would deploy and that it would be funded to some extent by Johnson.

He said that he has launched an investigation into whether the donation is even legal, and indicated it raises concerns about who can direct the Guard's activities. He said that private citizens are allowed to make donations to certain public causes, such as park projects. But, he said, these situations are rare and still have to be marked in the legislator's budget and tracked.

"This is something we should never entertain, because when does it stop? Our soldiers sign up to protect our country, elected officials need to be accountable to the people," Heinert said in an interview with Military.com. "If you have a mega-donor, you don't have to answer to anybody. That's not how this system was designed."

Military.com reached out to all state House and Senate Republicans on the Military and Appropriations Committees and did not get an immediate response from any of them.

It is unclear if Johnson's donation had already been made, or if that money could cover the full cost of the mission.

Congress has launched its own investigation into how this donation takes all finances into account and whether this will have consequences on the force's ability to train and conduct other missions.

Monica Matoush, spokeswoman for the House Armed Services Committee, said that the panel is working to "understand how this deployment affects not only the Guard's overall readiness, but also how reimbursements will be handled for equipment use and the associated maintenance costs."

In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" Wednesday, Adam Smith, D-Wash., who chairs the committee, said that he is also looking into the legality of the issue, and said if it isn't against the law for a private citizen to fund military missions "it ought to be."

"This is unbelievably dangerous … it is completely wrong. If it is not illegal, it ought to be," he said according to a clip from the show.

South Dakota's Guard will deploy on State Active Duty orders, or SAD, meaning that if injured, soldiers will have to seek state worker's compensation due to effectively being state employees. They are not entitled to care or disability claims through the Department of Veterans Affairs on SAD missions. Troops also do not accrue federal benefits such as the GI Bill.

The surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has been a political football, with Republicans accusing Democrats of slow-rolling efforts to secure the border.

There have also been concerns from the GOP that the military has become politicized, with leaders dragging the force into culture wars. For some, the recent move by Noem to back a privately funded military mission to the border exacerbates the perceived politicization of the military.

"We can never have our Guard for partisan political purposes; our military needs to be above that," State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat, said in an interview with Military.com. "Our guardsmen are not for hire ... Governors should not be swayed by an outside donor."

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Troops At US-Mexico Border Could Stay There for Three to Five Years, Report Says

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