South Dakotans have expressed deep concerns over EB-5 corruption, millions of dollars missing from GEAR UP, and the general lack of transparency and rampant cronyism in state government. Nowhere is integrity and transparency more needed than in the legislative interim committees that meet between sessions.

The Tribal Relations Committee recently had a unique opportunity to get answers in the case of GEAR UP, a federal program intended to help disadvantaged students — especially Native American youth — to prepare for, enter and succeed in college.

In October the Tribal Relations Committee, an interim committee, met at USD in Vermillion where Professor Marshall Damgaard explained the extensive GEAR UP “map” that he and his students compiled to illustrate their investigation of the GEAR UP cast of characters. 43 photos were pinned on the wall and each person’s links to people and educational agencies involved in the GEAR UP debacle were demonstrated with strings of colored yarn. The display covers an entire conference room wall, illustrating the tangled web of insiders surrounding the missing money that was supposed to help students.

Many mysteries surrounding GEAR UP and the Mid-Central Education Co-op were discussed — including a missing safe kept in the Westerhuis home in Platte that may have contained records of the money trail. Attendees at our meeting who are close to the Westerhuis family expressed serious doubts about the murder/suicide deaths attributed to Scott Westerhuis. Some stated the opinion that at least 20 of those pictured on the wall should be in jail.

After the presentation, I made a motion to subpoena Secretary of Education Melody Schopp, former secretaries Tom Oster and Rick Melmer, and other key players in the GEAR UP scandal.

Sen. Troy Heinert, committee chair, took a position against issuing the subpoenas. Sen. Stace Nelson noted that Chairman Heinert’s mother is one of the people identified in the GEAR UP research map, therefore he should have recused himself from voting because of a conflict of interest. Sen. Heinert then ruled that he did not have a conflict of interest and in a tied 5-5 vote, my motion to subpoena witnesses was lost.

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The committee members who voted against seeking answers to the whereabouts of 60 million federal dollars that was for disadvantaged kids were Sens. Heinert and Killer and Reps. Lesmeister, Bordeaux and Tieszen. Voting with me to pursue answers to this theft were Sens. Russell and Nelson, and Reps. Livermont and May.

Democrats and Republicans have long been complaining about cronyism, no transparency and all the unanswered questions surrounding the $60 million that was siphoned off as it passed through many hands, yet both Democrat and Republican committee chairs have blocked efforts to get to the truth.

The Republican Chair of the Government Operations and Accountability Committee (GOAC), Sen. Deb Peters, stymied another opportunity to get answers in the GEAR UP money mystery when she also refused to issue subpoenas or place witnesses under oath.

It’s no wonder that South Dakota ranks fourth in state government corruption. Stay tuned for more on this story.

State Sen. Phil Jensen represents District 33 in Rapid City.

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