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Under increasing pressure Bennett County sheriff resigns

MARTIN, S.D. - Less than a year into his term, Bennett County Sheriff Charles Cummings, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe resigned unexpectedly and accusations raging about racism are rampant.

Cummings was elected sheriff this past November after a hard-fought political battle to get American Indians on the ballot and to get many out to vote. The result was the election of a school board member and county commissioner from the American Indian community with upwards of 60 percent voter turnout. Average voter participation in the past from the American Indian community was only 10 to 12 percent.

Bennett County, once part of the Pine Ridge Reservation is located between the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in Martin. The county and the city of Martin have a majority of American Indian residents, but over the years the county commission, city and school district has been controlled by the non-Indian community.

Cummings resigned on the morning of Aug. 15. The county commissioners met that afternoon, contacted the state Attorney General's office and set procedures in motion to prevent any law enforcement problems. An interim sheriff was selected at the recommendation of Attorney General Larry Long.

Shortly after Cummings was elected sheriff, the city of Martin decided to form its own police department. That meant taking needed funds from the Sheriff's department, which provided law enforcement for the city. Accusations of racial motivation against the city officials surfaced and a boycott of city businesses was organized.

Cumming's resignation also comes on the heels of the loss of an appeal to have three department employees, including his son, state certified as police officers. The state claimed the three, Chief Deputy David Mills and Deputy Charles Cummings Jr. and dispatcher Teresa Gomez, did not claim past arrests or convictions on their applications. Cummings released all three of the deputies.

History also plays a roll that permeates the political atmosphere in the county. A former sheriff, a non-Indian was forced to resign. He was said to be fair and impartial when it came to American Indians. The sheriff appointed to serve was Russ Waterbury, whom Cummings defeated in November. Under Waterbury's administration it was said that many American Indian homes were entered and searched without cause and hundreds of people in vehicles stopped without cause.

But the real reason Cummings resigned was the result of an investigation by the state Department of Criminal Investigation, which is controlled by the Attorney General.

"The investigation was about financial irregularities. And the investigation is over," Long said.

The state was notified by the County Court about the possibility of some wrongdoing with finances.

Long said that any financial problems have been taken care of and all money repaid, that he knows of. Cummings, under a verbal agreement, will not be charged with criminal activity.

In a hand-written resignation letter, Cummings alluded to the problem: "I Charles L. Cummings hereby resign my position as sheriff of Bennett County. I have a problem with video lottery that I need to take care of on my own. I will not fight the alegations (sic) that were brought on me. I have no hard feelings toward the Attorney Generals (sic) office or the office of DCI," Cummings wrote. That was the entire text of his resignation letter.

Cummings, a 15-year veteran of the Pine Ridge Department of Public Safety is not certified through the state of South Dakota.

The county will not be left without law enforcement administration.

Wayne Livermont, county commissioner, said after an executive session meeting on Aug. 19 the commission appointed Doug Lake, former DCI officer as temporary sheriff. Jim Taggert, sheriff for the unincorporated Shannon county and sheriff of Fall River county will act as Chief Deputy.

"I am relieved we got someone to fill the position on an interim basis," Livermont said. He added that a permanent appointment may take place within 60 days.

Since the city chose to form its own police department the county will have to reduce the number of employees in the sheriff's department. The department has four patrol deputies, four full-time dispatchers and two part-time employees. Cummings said that three people would have to be cut when the separation was announced in July. Livermont did not say what the employee reduction would be.

When Cummings ran for office he said he wanted change the way that Indians were treated in Bennett county. Under the former sheriff Russ Waterbury, Cummings said Indians were stopped for no reason and made to stand in the heat or cold at the demand of the deputy.

He was swept into office in November at a time when the American Indian vote pushed Sen. Tim Johnson back into office by 524 votes over his challenger and hand-picked Bush Administration candidate former Congressman John Thune.

The LaCreek Civil Rights Committee organized the political structure for the victories celebrated by many American Indians and it was the American Indian vote that put Sen. Johnson over the top in the election.

To sustain a movement to include American Indians in the political system in Bennett County will be difficult. "It's devastating," said Jesse Claussen, head of the LaCreek Civil Rights Committee.

Claussen asserts that for American Indians or those who support fairness and honesty the job of an elected official is difficult because of the pressure.

The LaCreek Civil Rights group will not stop. Claussen said they will continue to work for the election of people that are fair and honorable toward American Indian people.

Long said Cummings becomes the fifth county sheriff in the past 13 years that has been asked to resign following an investigation by the Attorney General's office.