- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

Editors: Please note that The Associated Press welcomes editorial contributions from members for the weekly Editorial Roundup. Three editorials are selected every week. Contributions can be made by email at [email protected]

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Watertown Public Opinion, Watertown, June 3, 2015

Feds complete EB-5 probe and say little

Over the years we’ve discussed many times the importance of openness in government. People need to have faith and confidence in their government and the people running it. We need to believe they are making the right decisions based on the best interests of the people they represent.

If there were a better example of why that is so important than the EB-5 mess, we’d be hard-pressed to come up with it.

We were disappointed to learn Monday the FBI has closed its investigation into South Dakota’s investment-for-visa program, and our state’s U.S. Attorney said he would not pursue any prosecution. For those unfamiliar with the program, EB-5 is a state-run federal program which allows recruitment of wealthy immigrant investors for projects in exchange for green cards. Investors must provide at least $500,000 for a federally approved program. They then can become legal, permanent residents after two years and eligible later to become citizens.

Our concern from the beginning was it sounded an awful lot like cash for green cards and could easily open the door for bribery and other wrongdoing. But be that as it may, EB-5 was and is legal and has led to some significant investments across the state.

In 2009, South Dakota decided to privatize the program and turned it over to SDRC Inc., an Aberdeen company headed by Joop Bollen. Prior to that, Bollen headed the EB-5 program when he was in charge of the S.D. International Business Institute at Northern State University. SDRC came under scrutiny prior to the 2013 death of former Governor’s Office of Economic Development Secretary Richard Benda. Benda committed suicide in 2013 as state officials prepared felony theft charges.

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development has since terminated its contract with SDRC and now administers the program. But there are still questions that remain unanswered. Some have been examined by our legislature, while others have not yet been addressed.

First, how was Benda able to divert more than $500,000 for his own use without raising red flags? Were others involved? What happened to the money once it was diverted and can any of it be recovered?

The state and feds investigated Benda, Bollen and the EB-5 program. Other than the state being ready to prepare arrest warrants for Benda, were any warrants considered for others?

What exactly were the Feds looking for when they conducted their probe and why? What started their investigation of Benda, SDRC and EB-5? What exactly did they find?

The FBI declined to discuss the investigation details or who the agency was looking into. All we know is the FBI had been investigating the program based on “allegations, which came to our attention.”

What were those allegations and why not discuss what the FBI findings were? How did that affect the decision not to file charges?

The state also investigated Benda and EB-5 and essentially adopted a similar “say nothing” policy. The only thing we know is no charges other than the ones for Benda were considered.

Probably worst of all is the specter that politics and the 2014 U.S. Senate race came into play when Democrat appointee U.S. Attorney for S.D. Brendan Johnson more than hinted something was afoot during the election. Today, with the election decided, and the FBI’s decision, we know nothing will be done. It leaves a foul taste in our mouth, and if Johnson ever runs for office in South Dakota, as many suspect he will, he will need to be held accountable for what he said and more importantly, what he did not say.

All this silence does is raise questions about what happened, who all may have been involved, and if there were problems with the administration of the program.

Silence, when it comes to government, leads to questions and the more questions that are left unanswered leads to even more questions.

That’s why openness in government is so important. And the real lesson on the EB-5 mess: The more the public is denied access or answers, the less trust there is.

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Rapid City Journal, Rapid City, May 21, 2015

State drops the ball on Medicaid project

State officials and lawmakers in Pierre are fond of criticizing the federal government for its deficit spending, bloated and lethargic bureaucracy, and legendary inefficiencies, all reasonable observations.

But as we recently learned, state government in South Dakota can be just as sluggish as any federal agency.

What we don’t understand is why.

In a hearing before a legislative panel, Department of Social Services Secretary Lynne Valenti reported that even though it has been five years since a contract dispute with a vendor stopped the installation of a Medicaid management information system, she had no idea when the project would be completed.

In addition, Valenti said more money will likely be needed to complete it as a number of federal regulations have changed in the past five years. The budget for the new system was $76 million with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services paying 90 percent, or $62.7 million, of the bill. Of that money, around $12 million remains available.

The plan now, according to the department’s secretary, is to try to have a “go-forward plan” in place by July, which is another way of saying we are working on a plan to figure out what our plan is going to be, a wonderful example of bureaucratize.

One can’t help but wonder why there is so little urgency to finish a project that so far has cost taxpayers at least $50 million with nothing to show for it except for an astonishing update to a legislative panel.

Is it because having an up-to-date Medicaid information system is not a priority for the state? Is it because Medicaid recipients are not a priority? Is it because the state’s bureaucracy is inefficient or not up to the task? Has the department had more pressing problems over the past five years that were not disclosed at Tuesday’s meeting?

Lawmakers at the meeting seemed to take the news in stride. A Republican state senator, Larry Tidemann of Brookings, did use the opportunity, however, to blame the federal government when he said, “we recognize the problems that have been imposed on us and the state of South Dakota.”

The problem with his statement is that it suggests the state bears no responsibility and should not be held accountable for the long delay. Once the state of South Dakota agreed to accept $62 million from the federal government, it certainly accepted some responsibility to implement the new system as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Rather hard-earned taxpayer money has been allocated but not utilized, and state government says it will likely need more money to complete the project, which sounds similar to how the federal government with all its wasteful practices operates.

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Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, May 30, 2015

Parks plan needs thorough discussion

Every city is proud of its parks. And if asked, residents usually will say they would like more and better parks.

But when you ask how best to pay for park improvements and development, the conversation becomes more difficult.

The city of Sioux Falls, in partnership with developers, has done an excellent job developing green spaces within neighborhoods and throughout miles of asphalt streets. But arrangements to acquire land for parks in new development areas are informal.

No city ordinance requires developers to set aside land in new housing developments to be used for parks.

Also, the public money necessary to add and improve parks have not kept up with population growth.

City officials have a proposal to generate more money for park development. The money would come from a fee, probably assessed to developers and used to pay for new parks.

A discussion on initiating such a fee is included in the city’s 10-year parks plan and the City Council probably will have many conversations on this subject before approving any increase. That’s appropriate.

But it’s never too early to get residents thinking about our parks system and asking questions of leaders on how best to proceed:

- Is the notion of having a park every half mile in the city a realistic goal? And if so, should it become a city mandate?

- How do we decide what size park with what sort of amenities should be built in new areas?

- How deep is the backlog of existing park development needs? And what is the plan and timeline to catch that up?

- What amount will be assessed? How is it passed on to the homebuilder or buyer, and do commercial and nonprofit organizations also pay into the park development fund?

A consultant, Green Play, helped the city put together its master plan during the past year. Its findings, after taking community input, serving as host to focus groups and studying the city’s needs, offer clear insight into our community’s wants and desires.

Residents told the consultant that they want additional bike trails in newer growth areas, tennis courts in the northwest and southwest sectors, a large event space for community events, an adventure park, additional community centers at new elementary schools, and fitness and family fun stations along the city trail system.

Putting a price tag on those and other improvements is the difficult part.

City officials are right to lay the ground work now for this discussion. They will need to listen to parks officials as well as the public in devising a plan that can sustain our reputation as a parks-friendly community and ensure that residents in newer city neighborhoods have access to parks.

And all of us will need to pay attention to the proposed costs.

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