None of the people involved in the GEAR UP grant who were invited to testify before a legislative committee next week plan to show up. Some of them did provide written answers to questions submitted to them by the Government Operations and Audit Committee.
Last night, KELOLAND investigates broke the story about a 2011 email warning from then Director of Indian Education to the new Secretary of Education Melody Schopp, over how GEAR UP was being handled.
The Director of Indian Education Lu Ann Werdel warned Schopp and others about mismanagement and even illegal activity by Mid Central and Stacy Phelps when it came to administering the grants.
Werdel later wrote a letter of apology to Schopp and ten other people included in the email for sending it. Werdel told us she was angry about being forced to resign and should have addressed those issue in private to Schopp. However, Werdel says just because she apologized, it doesn’t mean her accusations weren’t true.
The Director of Indian Education who followed her, Roger Campbell also had concerns about how the GEAR UP grant was being administered.
The Department of Education Finance Director Tamara Darnall tells GOAC in a written answer to their questions that Campbell raised concerns about the grant’s fiscal documentation, but that she didn’t know about any claims of illegal activity.
KELOLAND News talked with a woman who worked on the GEAR UP grant about the time all these warnings were being issued. She says the program was not being run ethically.
Beth Carnes worked for Crazy Horse School as a GEAR UP adviser beginning in 2010.
“It was a very casually run thing,” Carnes said.
Carnes told KELOLAND investigates that in the fall of 2012, all the GEAR UP advisers met at Cedar Shores Resort and Melody Schopp, along with Stacy Phelps and Scott and Nicole Westerhuis were there.
“Stacy Phelps and Melody Schopp told us GEAR UP can no longer give you money up front. You have to spend the money and then the school will be reimbursed,” Carnes said.
That means before 2012, all the GEAR UP grant money was given up front.
“If you were ethical you did the programming and you gave them receipts. But if you weren’t you took the money and there was no real oversight as to what it was spent on,” Carnes said.
Secretary Schopp told GOAC in July that the additional checks and balances by the Department of Education started in 2012 and continued on.
“Not at any point in time did we feel there was nefarious or criminal activity occurring. We felt the obligation to make sure we were supporting, helping, providing technical support, just like we would do with any school district,” Schopp said on July 24.
But Carnes says the Department of Education should have done much more.
If you knew in 2013 things were wrong, 2012, it shouldn’t have gotten to September of 2015,” Carnes said.
Carnes says there’s a reason she never took her concerns over how GEAR UP money was being spent any higher.
“GEAR UP is Stacy Phelps. There’s no secretary, there’s nobody, he is the top of GEAR UP. If I said to my coordinator, I’m not sure how this is going, I’m not happy with this, you’re going to get a personal phone call or visit from Stacy Phelps. I loved my job and I didn’t want to lose it,” Carnes said.
Carnes went back to Georgia for family reasons, but donated her last paycheck from GEAR UP to Crazy Horse School, so that at least some of the Native American students would benefit from the money.
Meanwhile, political sparring over GEAR UP is heating up. Republican Senator Stace Nelson is demanding that GOAC meet for ten hours in Vermillion at the site of the “GEAR UP” map put together by a USD professor and his students.
That map tracks the scandal in the state and how various people involved are all connected.
Nelson wants to summon at least six witnesses. He’s also calling for Senator Deb Peters to be removed as chair of GOAC, saying she is abusing her position as chairwoman.
Peters requested that Nelson go before the committee and reveal his sources and any evidence he has of criminal activity involving GEAR UP; Nelson says a hearing in Vermillion is his way to fulfill that request.