- Associated Press - Monday, June 25, 2018

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A former business employee at a Platte-based educational cooperative charged in an embezzlement scheme that helped spark a South Dakota scandal is heading to trial on theft charges.

Jury selection starts Monday in Sioux Falls for Stephanie Hubers, a onetime Mid-Central Educational Cooperative staffer accused of getting more than $50,000 to keep quiet about embezzlement by Mid-Central’s business manager and his wife before their deaths in 2015.

Here’s a look at key information about the trial:

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THE CASE



The trial comes more than two years after authorities launched a financial investigation because Mid-Central business manager, Scott Westerhuis, killed his wife and children in a murder-suicide.

The investigation spurred felony charges in 2016 against Hubers, 45, of Geddes, and two others who allegedly helped in the couple’s embezzlement scheme.

Court records say Scott Westerhuis and his wife Nicole took money from Mid-Central’s bank account without authorization to fund payroll at a nonprofit with which they had ties. Hubers is accused of getting more than $50,000 from the nonprofit, called the American Indian Institute for Innovation, from 2009 to 2014 that she wasn’t entitled to or that she knew had been stolen.

Hubers told authorities that Scott Westerhuis paid her extra money from the nonprofit beyond her Mid-Central salary to perform duties such as research. She said the additional duties quickly stopped, but the extra money kept coming, according to a state Division of Criminal Investigation agent’s court affidavit.

The agent says in the affidavit that Hubers admitted the money Westerhuis paid her wasn’t right.

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THE BACKGROUND

Investigators believe the total amount that Scott and Nicole Westerhuis stole surpassed $1 million. The case exploded into public view after Westerhuis in 2015 shot his wife and their four children, then set fire to their home and killed himself.

The couple initially tried to hide the alleged illegal activity that started as early as 2010, but became more brazen near the time of the September 2015 fire, according to the affidavit. They spent at least part of the money on home improvement projects, Attorney General Marty Jackley has said.

The case has been the subject of extensive hearings, spurred new state laws and become a topic of political campaigns.

“I’m not sure that a jury trial or verdict can bring closure to a tragedy such as this,” Jackley told the Argus Leader ahead of the proceedings.

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THE LEGALESE

Hubers pleaded not guilty to one count of grand theft and two counts of grand theft by deception and three alternative receiving stolen property counts. She faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and fines for each count.

Her attorney, Clint Sargent, declined to comment to The Associated Press. Jury instructions proposed by Hubers’ side say the crimes require the intent to steal, defraud or receive property knowing it’s been stolen - suggesting a legal strategy that argues they don’t fit what Hubers is accused of doing.

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THE OTHERS

Two others charged in the case, former Mid-Central Director Dan Guericke and consultant Stacy Phelps, are to face trial later.

Guericke and Phelps are accused of backdating two contracts between Mid-Central and the American Indian Institute for Innovation in August 2015 before they were made available to the state Department of Legislative Audit. Investigators say in the court records they believe the contract changes were an attempt to avoid a potential audit of the Institute.

Guericke is also accused of conspiring with Scott and Nicole Westerhuis to backdate contracts with other people.

Guericke has been charged with six felony counts for falsifying evidence and conspiring to offer forged or fraudulent evidence. Phelps, who previously served as chief executive of the American Indian Institute for Innovation, is charged with four felony counts for those alleged crimes.

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