KELOLAND GEAR UP Investigation Prompts Lawmakers To Update Conflict Of Interest Law


For the last four and a half months, our KELOLAND News investigation has been uncovering conflicts of interest involving the multi-million dollar GEAR UP grant in South Dakota.  That’s led to a lot of questions involving people working in administering education and their second or even third jobs.

Now two new ethics bills are before this year’s legislature that aim for more transparency in state government.

One of those bills just came out Wednesday.  It’s co-authored by Republicans Mark Mickelson and Deb Peters.  Another bill tightening up conflict of interest laws has already been introduced by Democrat Paula Hawks.  There are differences in the bills, but there’s one thing lawmakers behind both can agree upon: the tragedy in Platte is the catalyst for change.

Days after Scott Westerhuis murdered his family, before turning the gun on himself, we learned that the state had pulled its multi-million dollar contract for the GEAR UP program from Mid Central, Westerhuis’ employer.  One of the reasons was conflict of interest.  Our investigation found that Scott Westerhuis and his wife, Nicole, were also managing funds for the American Institute for Indian Innovation, the organization that got GEAR UP money to run the programs. On top of that, Westerhuis also had a paid position as the grant budget specialist. 

“Watching your coverage of the issue and looking at what would appear to be some abuse that took place and shaking my head,” Republican Representative Mark Mickelson said.

There is also Stacey Phelps who sat on the Board of Education, ran AIII and was paid with GEAR UP funds.

“Maybe some people taking advantage of the system and we need do make sure we’ve got the right laws on the books to take care of that kind of behavior,” Mickelson said.

Right now, South Dakota’s conflict of interest laws don’t apply to members of state boards or school district employees. 
Remember Lance Witte?  He’s the superintendent of Wessington Springs who also worked for AII and GEAR UP.  Joe Graves, Superintendent in Mitchell, made six figures administering another grant for Mid Central, even though it wasn’t allowed in his contract with the school district. Mickelson’s bill would also apply to them.

“The school district employees may push back the strongest.  Because it’s not often the state wades into their issues. But they’re spending state money,” Mickelson said.

Mickelson says his proposal would take out the question of conflict. 

“Go to your boss. Tell him what the deal is. Have the board bless it and make it a public record so that the next time something happens you can say it didn’t violate it, or it wasn’t contrary to the state’s interest and the public knew about it,” Mickelson said.

And if they didn’t?

“We don’t want them working for us anymore and we want them to be punished and we want them to give the money back,” Mickelson said.

Democrat Paula Hawks introduced a bill that would require any state board member who either volunteers or is paid per meeting to obey the state’s conflict of interest laws.

Mickelson’s bill would apply to just board members who are responsible for budgets and certain school district employees.

Hawks has another bill coming out that establishes a “government accountability committee.”  It would be made up of legislative leaders and the governor and it would have subpoena power.  But she’s not calling it an “ethic’s commission.”  She says that term doesn’t go over so well in Pierre.

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