PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Democratic lawmakers in South Dakota plan to renew their push for a state ethics commission as questions mount about the handling of public funds at an educational cooperative after an apparent murder-suicide involving two employees.
Rep. Peggy Gibson says she’ll make another attempt at creating an ethics panel in the upcoming session, spurred on by last month’s events surrounding Platte-based Mid-Central Educational Cooperative. Authorities are investigating former employee Scott Westerhuis’ personal finances and his management of the organization as they search for a motive in the killings.
Gibson, who sponsored an ethics commission proposal last session in the wake of the state’s EB-5 visa program scandal, said South Dakota needs more government oversight.
Republicans holding supermajorities in the Legislature and controlling the governor’s office have largely opposed re-establishing such a body. South Dakota had an ethics commission until it was repealed in 1979.
House Majority Leader Brian Gosch opposed the ethics commission measure last session. He said an existing legislative oversight committee has successfully exposed weaknesses in oversight of the GEAR UP program managed by Mid-Central, showing that the current system works.
Authorities believe Westerhuis, who had a role in the administration of a federal grant program in South Dakota for Native American college readiness, shot his wife and four children before setting his home ablaze and then killing himself. Gibson compares the troubling scenario involving Westerhuis and the cooperative to a suicide in the investment-for-visa scandal.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley was ready to file felony theft charges and seek an indictment against former cabinet secretary Richard Benda days before authorities say he killed himself with a shotgun in October 2013. The investigation stemmed from allegations that Benda double-billed the state for flights and redirected $550,000 in economic development money for his own use.
“Where’s the oversight? This should not happen in state government, and we’ve had two, big, massive, incidents,” Gibson said. “Why does this keep happening in South Dakota?”
Since Benda’s death, Jackley has declined to release law enforcement investigation records, which he has said are exempt from disclosure under state public records law. The state Supreme Court in May ruled against a reporter who pursued their disclosure.
Authorities believe the killings involving Westerhuis, who was business manager at Mid-Central, occurred hours after the state informed the organization it wouldn’t renew its contract for managing the GEAR UP grant. It has received $10.7 million in federal GEAR UP funds over the last four years.
Mid-Central consists of a group of school districts that have banded together to form an educational service unit. The cooperative provides regular and special education services.
The state Department of Education secretary cited financial problems and failures to follow proper accounting procedures at Mid-Central as reasons not to renew the grant. Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he has asked Jackley to look beyond Westerhuis for any evidence of wrongdoing in the administration of the program.
Mid-Central officials declined to comment most recently at the cooperative’s Thursday governing board meeting.
“I’m just referring all questions to our attorney,” Mid-Central director Dan Guericke said. Scott Swier, the cooperative’s lawyer, has also declined to answer most questions until the investigation by the state Division of Criminal Investigation is completed.
Daugaard Chief of Staff Tony Venhuizen said in a statement that the “governor believes that, in cases like GEAR UP, it is best to allow law enforcement and prosecutors to lead the investigation, rather than a political commission.”
House Republicans easily blocked the ethics commission plan during the 2015 session, arguing that it was unnecessary and that the EB-5 program was thoroughly examined by the operations and audit committee. Gosch said he largely maintains that view heading into 2016.
“I still think the intention is more of a political ploy,” he said. “I think an ethics commission, if in existence, would not have stopped the problems at Mid-Central.”
The Legislature passed a Republican-backed proposal during the 2015 session to overhaul conflict-of-interest laws for South Dakota public employees in response to the investment-for-visa scandal.
Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton, a supporter of a commission, said he envisions a panel that would provide oversight and propose policies to strengthen ethics in politics.
Gibson said her plan will likely look very similar to the measure she authored last session, which was a resolution requesting that lawmakers and the executive and judicial branches develop a plan to restore the commission that would be considered the next year. Gibson said she imagines an impartial group designed to review ethics violations and complaints in all areas of government.
State government shouldn’t police itself, Gibson said. Sutton said the existing legislative oversight body, the operations and audit committee, is run by the Republican majority, which limits checks and balances.
“There’s been one-party rule for a long, long, long time, and when you have that, I’m just afraid that a lot of things don’t get uncovered,” he said.
Having an independent, outside group examining government ethics is beneficial to a state, said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. He said that the commissions can offer more confidence that taxpayer funds are used the right way and that the elected class has the people in mind.
“Having a close looks at ethics really helps ensure that public officials are really working for the public,” he said.
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