The first Native American astronaut to fly in space took the stand on Friday in the Stacy Phelps’ GEAR UP trial.

John Herrington is chairman of the board of the American Indian Institute for Innovation. Phelps was the organization’s chief executive officer.

In 2016, our KELOLAND News investigation into GEAR UP discovered that Herrington was involved in the program dating back to 2008.

After the Westerhuis tragedy in Platte, Herrington began going over AIII’s books and he didn’t like what he found.  Herrington then fired Stacy Phelps as CEO.

As chairman of the board for AIII, Herrington told jurors he was not involved in the day-to-day operations. That was Phelps’ job.

But Herrington said he believed AIII was a “bare bones operation,” and strictly based on administering grant services designed to benefit Native American students.

It wasn’t until after the deaths of the Westerhuis family that Herrington began going through all of AIII’s bank statements and discovered that it owned 22 vehicles and was doing much more than just grant work. It was bringing in $8,000 to $10,000 a month in income from contract work for education services on most of South Dakota’s reservations. 

Phelps’ attorney said no one ever lied to Herrington specifically about that work. Herrington said he was never told about it at all. Herrington also said that the contract work was not in the AIII budgets the board received in 2013 and 2014.

Prosecutors also showed jurors an email exchange between Phelps and Westerhuis where they referred to other AIII board member, Carlos Rodriguez of Washington, D.C.

Phelps told Westerhuis that Carlos thought AIII was “bare bones.”

Phelps went onto write if Rodriguez knew that AIII had 35 staff, “he will ask much more questions.”

The state is trying to prove Phelps’ motive for backdating contracts to avoid a state audit of AIII.

Jurors also heard part of a four-hour interview conducted by Department of Criminal Investigation special agents, the FBI and IRS with Stacy Phelps. 

Phelps admitted to backdating contracts because “Scott said it wasn’t in place.”

Phelps told investigators he didn’t realize the language had changed in the contracts.  Phelps asked the agents, “So can I get in trouble for that?”

Following testimony from a state auditor, prosecutors will rest their case and the defense will begin calling witnesses next week.

Phelps is expected to testify in his own defense.