PIERRE | A new era for public ethics in South Dakota starts July 1. The Mickelson rule kicks in.

Members on 22 state boards, commissions and authorities must disclose any financial conflicts they have within their state responsibilities.

The same requirement applies at the local level in education for any board member, fiscal agent, officer or executive. This covers school districts, education cooperatives and service agencies that receive funding from or through state government.

The new law prohibits all of these people from financial gain through a conflict, unless they received clearance after reviews of their declared conflicts. They still would be banned from acting on official matters involving their conflict areas.

The legislation came from Rep. G. Mark Mickelson, R-Sioux Falls. He sponsored a similar law a year ago that generally bans self-dealing by state government employees.

The ban for employees allows exceptions that must be reviewed and, if allowed by a supervisor, must be publicly disclosed. The goal is to better protect the taxpaying public. There is much uncertainty at the state level and the local level about the definition of a conflict.

Don Kirkegaard went through the uncertainty.

He is superintendent of the Meade school district at Sturgis. He is president for the state Board of Education. And he moonlighted a few times finding candidates for superintendent searches in other districts.

His photograph was one of four on the Internet site for Dakota Education Consulting LLC. Recently, Kirkegaard had it removed. He stopped working for them.

Tom Oster of Volga and Rick Melmer of Sioux Falls organized Dakota Education Consulting on March 13, 2013. They used Avon lawyer Scott Swier, who also advises Mid Central Education Cooperative at Platte.

Melmer and Oster were South Dakota’s two previous state secretaries of education under former governor, and now U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds.

Kirkegaard cleared his consulting work with state Education Secretary Melody Schopp and the state Department of Education’s lawyer.

Schopp worked in positions of increasing responsibility for Melmer and Oster in the department. Gov. Dennis Daugaard appointed her to replace Oster in 2011.

Schopp selected Melmer to help oversee Mid Central’s management of the GEAR UP program for the department. He also routed various other contracts, including one with the state Board of Regents, for himself through Mid Central.

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The state board will discuss the conflict disclosure rule May 16 in Aberdeen.

GEAR UP receives about $3 million annually from the federal government to help students from low-income households consider college or technical school. The money runs through the state department.

No success measures were reported, because they weren’t required to be reported. Mid Central is under financial and criminal investigation.

Stacy Phelps of Rapid City, who ran GEAR UP, resigned from the state board last year. He is one of three facing criminal charges. Another board member, Kelly Duncan, now a dean at Northern State University, held contracts through Mid Central.

These weren’t considered conflicts, because the state board doesn’t oversee the state department’s finances or contracts.

Instead, a web of people quietly made arrangements, through a place outside most of South Dakota’s view, for themselves and one another.

Bob Mercer is the state capitol correspondent for the Rapid City Journal. He can be reached by emailing bobmercer2014@gmail.com.

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