SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — From a murdered mother to one of the State’s largest health systems and a top neurosurgeon accused of fraud; 2019 was a busy year for KELOLAND Investigates. Here are the top KELOLAND News investigations of 2019:
A wrap-up of the KELOLAND Kremlin Connection:
The KELOLAND Kremlin Connection was an investigation we first brought you in 2017.
Vermillion native and Republican conservative operative Paul Erickson and his Russian girlfriend Maria Butina formed a limited liability company in South Dakota called Bridges.
To this date, I’ve been the only reporter to get a comment from Paul Erickson about the allegations against him. He spoke to me through his apartment speaker phone.
December 20, 2017:
Erickson: Hi Angela, how can I help?
Angela Kennecke: I was wondering if you’d be able to talk to us about what the New York Times is reporting–about you trying to set up a meeting between President Trump and Putin.
Erickson: Ha-ha, it didn’t exactly happen that way.
Over the last two years, KELOLAND Investigates has followed the saga of Butina and Erickson. Butina was sentenced to prison for being a covert Russian agent. She was deported back to Russia this year where she now works as an online video host.
In November of this year, Erickson plead guilty in a fraud scheme with a different South Dakota LLC, that authorities say bilked at least $2.3 million from 78 people. He could face up to 20 years in prison.
Global Aquaponics Leaders sentenced to prison for fraud:
We started looking into another case of investor fraud in 2016 and Global Aquaponics was still making headlines in 2019. KELOLAND Investigates exposed that company organizers promised investors a big return on their money for a fish and vegetable farm proposed near Brookings and lied about how much money they had on hand.
The facility was never built. Two Global Aquaponics leaders, Tobias Ritesman and Tim Burns were found guilty of federal fraud charges and sentenced to prison in 2019.
Both Ritesman and Burns have filed appeals.
Sanford Health and Dr. Asfora accused of kickback scheme:
In June, we learned the details of a federal lawsuit first filed in 2016, after it was unsealed.
The federal government accused Sioux Falls Neurosurgeon Dr. Wilson Asfora of performing unnecessary surgeries and Sanford Health of doing nothing to stop it, in order to make millions of dollars in kickbacks from Medicaid, Medicare and other health programs.
KELOLAND Investigates spoke with a former Dr. Asfora brain surgery patient who filed a case in state court.
Robin LeBeau underwent brain surgery in 2016 at Sanford Health. She claims the surgery was unnecessary and left her disabled.
“There should not have ever been a brain surgery performed on me. That I was not a candidate for this brain surgery,” LeBeau said on July 3, 2019.
Other patients came to Dr. Asfora’s defense, as well as his long-time nurse.
August 21, 2019:
Angela Kennecke: Do you believe that Dr. Asfora was unnecessarily putting in these cages or screws in patients.
Johnson: You know I don’t believe as a person he would do something like that, no.
Sanford Health fired Dr. Asfora in September. Without admitting any wrongdoing, Sanford Health agreed to pay more than $20 million to the federal government for the kickback schemes. The two physician whistle blowers who prompted the lawsuit get $1.7 million each. Dr. Asfora issued a statement to KELOLAND News denying performing any unnecessary surgeries.
I understand the news came out today of Sanford’s settlement with the Government. I want to make my position clear. I did not perform any unnecessary surgeries and I did not do any surgeries for the purpose of profiting from using medical devices I invented. I stand by my work as a physician and made every single medical decision based solely on my judgment as to what was the best for my patient, not myself. I am disappointed that after originally accurately identifying the relators’ and the Government’s accusations as “bogus,” Sanford made business decisions that led it to fire me and pay my accusers over $20 million, but, sadly, for some business is just business.Wilson Asfora, MD
Peskey murder investigation continues:
Sioux Falls realtor, Melissa Peskey was shot and killed while driving on Interstate 70 through Missouri on December 13, 2018. A year later, the search to find her killer remains active.
KELOLAND Investigates first broke the story of Melissa Peskey being shot on her cross-country trip with her children. We spoke with her husband, Ryan, who initially told us he was a person of interest because he didn’t pick up the phone when investigators first called.
We learned through family and friends that Melissa was leaving Ryan and that’s why she was on her way to South Carolina.
Her sister was talking to her on the phone moments before she died.
“Then she said, ‘Just a minute honey, I’m going to put the phone down, so that way she could get around the car and we started talking again and it wasn’t 2-3 minutes later and she stopped talking,” Kara Renken said on April 28, 2018.
Missouri investigators say that in 2019 they followed up on 185 leads in the case. Eight of those leads are still being actively investigated.
Minnehaha County top prosecutor only interview on absence:
Rumors started flying when Minnehaha County’s top prosecutor was out of the office for a couple of months this summer. Aaron McGowan was first elected to the position back in 2008. McGowan granted KELOLAND Investigates his only on-camera interview about the 911 call to his home that preceded his absence from work.
Angela Kennecke: Why are you talking to me now?
McGowan: Well because I wanted to set the record straight. There were reports out there that were false. Because of the questions out there, I just wanted to set the record straight and let everybody know I’m back and there wasn’t an issue, a cover up or a crime.
McGowan told us he sought help for PTSD and planned to run for office again. But Governor Kristi Noem ordered South Dakota’s Attorney General to investigate McGowan. While no criminal charges were filed the report indicated that McGowan may have abused alcohol and sent inappropriate Snapchat messages to coworkers. McGowan announced he was resigning in December.
Autism insurance gap closes:
In February of 2019, KELOLAND Investigates exposed why many children with autism were losing their insurance benefit to cover effective treatment.
“It was literally one sentence that starting in 2019, Easton will no longer be getting a service that Avera has previously covered,” Darcy Weber said on February 11, 2019.
Over the summer, the State found a way to close the loophole that allowed insurers to drop coverage for the therapy for some policies. But the new requirements wouldn’t go into effect until 2021. Parents told KELOLAND Investigates that Governor Noem broke her promise to meet with them to come up with a solution.
After KELOLAND Investigates reported on the parents’ concerns, Governor Noem helped bridge a gap in coverage for some of the children. Sanford Health Plan and Avera Health Plans have now voluntarily agreed to extend coverage in 2020, that won’t be required of them until 2021.
FBI still investigating Rosebud death:
You may also remember that we reported on the suspicious death of a young Native American boy on the Rosebud Reservation. The tribal president tells me the FBI is still investigating Alize Millard’s death and is not releasing any new details.