PIERRE | An attempt failed Monday to give subpoena power to every committee of the Legislature created by a state law.
Rep. Dan Kaiser, R-Aberdeen, proposed the change. It came after legislative auditors determined approximately $1.4 million couldn’t be tracked from the bank account for Mid-Central Educational Cooperative at Platte.
The money flowed from the U.S. Department of Education to the South Dakota Department of Education to Mid-Central. Mid-Central in turn gave several nonprofit organizations access to its bank account.
“This way, it helps us get to the truth of the matter,” Kaiser said.
The House Judiciary Committee made the decision to reject his legislation. The panel voted 9-2 against it Monday.
“This is a road I’m hesitant to go down,” Rep. David Lust, R-Rapid City, said.
The House of Representatives and the Senate have authority to summon witnesses and information during legislative sessions. Lawmakers also gave the power specifically to some panels that operate during the interims between the annual sessions.
They include the Government Operations and Audit Committee, the Executive Board that oversees the Legislative Research Council, and the interim committees established by the Executive Board.
Some committees that were created by state laws don’t have subpoena power. One is the State-Tribal Relations Committee, according to state Attorney General Marty Jackley.
Jackley issued an official opinion Dec. 20 stating that Kaiser’s bill, HB 1145, attempted to clarify all committees have subpoena power if created by state law.
“It just needs a lot more deliberation,” Rep. Timothy Johns, R-Lead, said. “I’m not in favor of it.”
Rep. Mike Diedrich, R-Rapid City, said a subpoena could be overbroad and reach into areas otherwise protected from disclosure.
“We need to take some time and understand it well,” Diedrich said.
Rep. Susan Wismer, D-Britton, recalled that the Government Operations and Audit Committee wouldn’t exercise its subpoena power regarding the GEAR UP grant money missing from Mid-Central. She serves on the committee.
“I think it would have been helpful,” Wismer said. She said they were dealing with situations that “weren’t illegal” but “weren’t right.”
That hindered the public’s understanding why “the tragedy happened,” Wismer said.
She didn’t specifically refer to Scott or Nicole Westerhuis. The couple and their four children were shot to death in a murder-suicide at their home south of Platte in the middle of the night three years ago.
Scott Westerhuis was business manager for Mid-Central. Nicole Westerhuis was an assistant business manager. The two also worked for the nonprofits that had access to the Mid-Central bank account.
Three other Mid Central employees face criminal charges on doctoring contracts and taking money illegally. The charges were brought after the killings. Melody Schopp retired Dec. 15 as state education secretary, after emails surfaced from years before.
“This is just a tool the committees can choose to use,” Kaiser said. He said this gives the Legislature authority over the executive branch.
Members of the State-Tribal Relations Committee weren’t able to get to the root of the issue in their look at the Mid-Central scandal, according to Kaiser.
Rep. Chuck Turbiville, R-Deadwood, called for Kaiser’s bill to be killed.
The committee also killed a measure from Rep. Shawn Bordeaux, D-Mission, seeking subpoena authority specifically for the State-Tribal Relations Committee. The vote was 8-4 Monday.