- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 11, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - The former administrator of the federal EB-5 investment-for-green-card program in South Dakota is defending it and accusing the media and political figures of drumming up an unwarranted scandal.

In his written answers to questions from the state Government Operations and Audit Committee, Joop Bollen also acknowledged that he had been interviewed by federal investigators about the program. His responses, which became public Monday night ahead of the committee’s Thursday meeting, are the first time he has made extensive public statements about EB-5; he’s refused to testify in person before lawmakers and for months has declined to comment to the media.

South Dakota was one of the pioneers in EB-5 financing under Bollen and former Governor’s Office of Economic Development secretary Richard Benda. The program recruits wealthy immigrant investors for projects in exchange for green cards. But for more than a year, South Dakota’s EB-5 program has been investigated by state and federal authorities.

Benda committed suicide last year as state officials prepared felony theft charges against him in connection with the financial misconduct, which left the state short of more than $500,000.

In a preface to his answers, Bollen said that he had been interviewed twice by the FBI in 2013, noting that both interviews focused on Benda. He said he was told Benda was the target of the investigation and wrote that because of an active investigation into the EB-5 program and SDRC, Inc., there are “limits” on what he can say.

Bollen headed the program for the state when he was in charge of the South Dakota International Business Institute at Northern State University. The program was privatized in 2009 and turned over to SDRC Inc., a company which Bollen had founded and served as president.

In his response, Bollen defended the EB-5 program as a “fabulous economic development tool” and says the only “scandal” is that the program has been “decimated as a result of the political and media insanity that has prevailed in South Dakota.”

“There seems to be a complete lack of interest for the truth unless it benefits one’s own political agenda and aspiration, or their version of the story,” Bollen wrote.

The program became the most talked-about issue of the election cycle in South Dakota this year, as it brought into question whether two Republican governors knew of the mismanagement at the economic development office.

Democratic state lawmakers became the most zealous critics of the program, as they hosted a series of press conferences exclusively to call on Bollen, Gov. Denis Daugaard and former Gov. Mike Rounds to testify before the committee. Little to no new information was presented at the Democratic press events, but they allowed the critics to keep the topic before voters as Daugaard was challenged for re-election and Rounds was in a four-way contest for a U.S. Senate seat, races that both men ultimately won.

Daugaard and Rounds declined to appear before the committee, but the Republican politicians submitted written answers to the panel.

Defeated Democratic gubernatorial candidate state Rep. Susan Wismer and state Sen. Larry Lucas were among the most outspoken critics. Wismer did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, and Lucas, who crafted some of the questions Bollen answered, could not be reached.


Garcia Cano reported from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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