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Woman ordered to pay back $116K she stole from grandmother, who has died

A woman who gambled away much of the $116,000 she stole from her grandmother in 16 months was sentenced in Sioux Falls to pay it all back during 10 years of probation.

Jennifer Ahrendt, 46, of Trent, pleaded guilty in May to the charge of theft by exploitation of an elder, a Class 4 felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, according to a news release on Wednesday from state Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg.

Trent is 33 miles north-northeast of Sioux Falls.

The theft occurred from Dec. 29, 2016 to May 11, 2018 while Ahrendt had power of attorney to handle the affairs of her grandmother,.

The grandmother turned 92 early this year and passed away on April 17, 2019, according to Ravnsborg’s office.

Ahrendt took $115,899.13 from her grandmother’s accounts, which she was supposed to manage on her grandmother’s behalf, and spent it on herself, “including a large portion which was gambled away,” Ravnsborg said.

The Division of Criminal Investigation, which is part of the attorney general’s office, reviewed legal documents, bank records and interviewed several people to make the case, according to Ravnsborg.

Assistant Attorney General Lindsey Quasney prosecuted Ahrendt, who was represented by public defender John O’Malley.

State Circuit Judge Bradley Zell recently sentenced Ahrendt to 180 days in the Minnehaha County Jail in Sioux Falls, with all of it suspended in lieu of 10 years probation and Ahrendt paying “full restitution,”of the $115,899.13.

Ahrendt also was ordered not to manage anyone else’s money during her probation.

The restitution paid by Ahrendt will go to her late grandmother's estate. No information was immediately available on what her estate involves. The grandmother's survivors include one child and two grandchildren, including Ahrendt, according to the obituary. There also are great grandchildren and two siblings of Ahrendt's late grandmother.

The case was investigated by the DCI’s special unit for crimes of abuse and financial exploitation against elders and adults with disabilities.

The elder abuse unit of the DCI was authorized in 2016 by the legislature when Marty Jackley was attorney general. He reported in 2017 that 28 cases had been started by the DCI elder abuse unit in a three month period.

Some cases have resulted in people going to prison.

In January 2018, Amy Schmidt of Aberdeen was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing $8,400 worth of goods and services by using credit cards belonging to three elderly clients of the home health agency where Schmidt worked. She also was ordered by the judge to pay restitution of $7,049 to the victims and court costs.

Schmidt, who is 39, remains in the state women’s prison in Pierre, according to online records of the Department of Corrections, but could be eligible for parole soon.

In his first pitch to legislators in January, Ravnsborg asked for money to hire another analyst for the elder abuse/adults with disabilities unit.

“It stems from basically more work, more — they’re not quick cases, they take longer, they’re more financial type cases,” Ravnsborg said, according to KELO reporter Bob Mercer. “And as they are slower to progress, the workload continues to grow.”

The Right Turn continues teaching, despite funding environment

The Right Turn, located on Sioux Ave. in Pierre, is a place to learn.

The United Way-sponsored non-profit organization seeks to strengthen the community by “nurturing personal growth and promoting economic success through education and job training.”

Since 1974, this organization, funded primarily through grants and donations, has been serving 12 rural counties in central South Dakota, and three American Indian reservations by offering a slew of education and training This includes: adult basic education and literacy classes, computer training, tutoring, GED preparation, National Career Readiness Certification training, English as a second language classes, work readiness classes, child care provider education and support, CPR certification, Child Development Associate certification medical transcription training, medical coding and billing training, pharmacy technician training, executive assistant training, computer technician training test proctoring

Depending on the day, the week and the projects, the training staff at The Right Turn ranges from a core of four principles and 15 others active at various levels, to many more occasional training personnel. Office hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. but often expand to include frequent night classes and weekend activities, and some training is done at the clients’ places of business.

Lack of grant funding, though, is the newest change for the non-profit community education organization.

“It’s a tough landscape now for most non-profits. Over the years The Right Turn has made very good use of big government grants and of scope-of-work contracts,” said director Mary Gates. “Now, available grant funds have not kept pace with the cost of services, the cost of doing business. We are trying to figure out alternative fundraisers.”

“We are the only nonprofit organization in South Dakota that supports education across the lifespan, by combining WIOA Title II Adult Education Services with Department of Social Services Early Childhood Enrichment services,” said Nancy Schlichenmayer, early childhood specialist. “Other organizations who do similar work tend to specialize in particular age groups or market sectors.”

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) is a United States public law that increases coordination among federal workforce development and related programs. WIOA Title II expands the range of providers eligible for funding for adult education and literacy activities to include organizations that partner with employers. It also directs states and the federal government to encourage activities that promote basic skills instruction delivered in the workplace.

“Unfortunately, hard numbers are difficult to quantify regarding how many individuals have been served over the years, because it depends on what you are counting,” said Gates. “We have electronic student records for 1,032 students who received adult education services from 28 different instructors since 2003. Fifty-four of these students were English Language Learners. Students who take computer classes, online training, CPR classes and early childhood classes are not included in this database,” said Gates.

“We taught early childhood classes for 260 unduplicated students from 42 different child care programs in program year 2017, and 220 unduplicated students from 26 different child care programs in program year 2018,” said Gates. “In the past two program years, we distributed 810 free child safety seats to eligible families and distributed 6,634 free books to young children through our community health partners in 12 counties in central South Dakota. In the past two years, we provided CPR certification to 194 people. Between May 2017 and July 2018, we proctored 192 different high-stakes tests such as GED and employment licensing exams.”

The Right Turn personnel are seemingly always busy teaching and training, and so many topics are worth learning. Some specific classes just cannot be accommodated.

“Two threads hold it all together,” said Gates. “One: we support education across a lifespan, beyond kindergarten through 12th grade, beyond the Board of Regents. All it takes is someone with curiosity about something, and who wants to learn about it. Two: we acknowledge the impact to the workforce. Out of so many good things, we have to choose what to teach. We tend to say yes to what is tied to the workforce. Although, say knitting, is enjoyable and worth learning, it might not be workforce oriented.”

“Though we will help people find the resources to learn, say knitting, other than through us,” interjected Schlichenmayer. “The education gap between what they want to learn and what training is available may not fit tightly in our area, but we know who curious people can contact. We work at whatever meets the need.”

“If available funding does not keep pace, and if we drop something, such as computer skills training, that drop would be harmful to the community. We work with people who are learning to close the gap of not yet knowing how to use online services,” said Gates.

Efforts at fundraising have increased.

To support educational programs, The Right Turn staff and volunteers have been selling raffle tickets at Trappers home baseball games. Tickets are still available at select local businesses, and each week the tickets will be collected and Right Turn staff will draw a winning ticket on Facebook Live. The weekly $50 winners will continue to draw a card to try to find the Ace of Hearts and win the total jackpot — the deck is shrinking. Other fundraisers are in the works.

The all-volunteer Right Turn Board of Directors includes Rebecca Hancock, Kerry Bowers, Jessica Jockheck, Jamie Damon, Angela Moran, Ashlee Stankey, and Angel Corrales. There are opportunities to volunteer — as educators, trainers, aids, even on the board.

The organization began in 1974, when the Pierre Clerical Program was founded to train individuals for entry-level clerical positions in central South Dakota. Over the decades, many programs have been initiated, then have been discontinued or transferred to other entities. Many awards have been earned. Some hallmarks include:

1986: It was renamed The Right Turn to reflect its broadened scope of services. Programs/services added included a General Education Development (GED program, career counseling, job search assistance, and life skills training.

1993: The Right Turn was registered as a 501©(3) non-profit incorporated in the state of South Dakota. It became one of the first United Way Participating Agencies in South Dakota.

2001: The Pierre School District contracted with The Right Turn to provide coordination services for a Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Program.

2002: The Pierre School District contracted with The Right Turn to provide a full time teacher/tutor to work with at-risk middle and high school youth in a Directed Study Program.

2017: After 20 years with its offices at S Coteau Street and E Dakota Avenue, The Right Turn moved into its own building at 115 E. Sioux Avenue, Pierre.

So far this year, The Right Turn again earned the “Spirit of United Way Partner Agency” award from the Capital Area United Way. It entered into an agreement with the SD Department of Labor and Regulation to provide services under Governor Kristi Noem’s Family First Initiative, which provides access to free computer classes, financial literacy and workplace social skills training.

Schlichenmayer was nominated by Oahe Inc. for the Governor’s Award for Distinguished Service for her lifetime of contributions to the employment of people with disabilities. (An award decision is expected in October). Gates was nominated for the South Dakota’s Premier Woman’s Award from the Spirit of Dakota Award Society. (This award decision was also expected in October).

For more information, including programs and class schedules, and to donate, call 773-4755 or visit www.TheRightTurn.org.

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Another ex-tribal chair at Crow Creek charged with embezzlement

Brandon Sazue, a former chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe was charged last week in federal court in Pierre with embezzling — with four other tribal leaders charged last month — from the tribe.

Sazue, who is 45 and lives in Chamberlain, appeared Friday, Aug. 9, in court and pleaded not guilty to the grand jury’s indictment handed down Aug. 6, according to U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons.

Sazue has served several two-year terms as chairman of the Crow Creek tribe based in Fort Thompson, including his last election in 2016 when he succeeded his aunt, Roxanne Sazue, who did not run for rel-election. She was in the same courtroom in Pierre on July 12 with three other tribal leaders — former council member and current treasurer on leave, Roland Hawk, Sr., Francine Maria Middletent and Jaquelyn Pease — facing the same charges.

Parsons says the four embezzled and used for their personal spending money from the tribe from March 2014, or earlier, until February 2019.

If convicted, the each could face 5 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of probation.

During the time of the alleged thefts, Brandon Sazue was tribal chairman, or Roxanne Sazue was; Hawk served as tribal treasurer and Middletent was on the tribal council. The three women also worked for Hawk in the tribe’s finance office and all four had access to funds embezzled from the tribe, Parsons said.

Hawk, who is facing separate charges of sexual assault against teenage girls, remains in federal custody, behind bars in the Hughes County Jail in Pierre, a jail official told the Capital Journal.

The other four were released on bond. A trial date for all five has been set for Sept. 10.

The case is part of the “Guardians Project,” involving many agencies aimed at promoting “citizen disclosure of public corruption,” involving federal program funds, contracts and grants, according to Parsons.

Embezzlement is not new at the Crow Creek reservation.

Several tribal members have told the Capital Journal it continues to be widespread.

This is not the first time for Middletent: In September 1994, when she was 31, Middletent pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzling more than $50,000 from the Crow Creek tribe’s liquor store in Fort Thompson while she worked in the financial office of the tribe, according to news reports and federal court documents.

In December 2018 in a case also part of the Guardians Project, Lana Steele, then 53 and the former tribal financial officer, was sentenced to four years probation and $11,500 restitution for embezzlement from the tribe.

In September 2017, Tally Colombe, then 42, was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for embezzling from a tribal investment fund she ran, using a tribal credit card to buy herself things a dozen stores in Pierre and Fort Pierre. .

A federal prosecutor said Colombe’s thefts led to the investment fund going down the tubes owing $550,000.

Then-Chairman Brandon Sazue was in court in Pierre for Colombe’s sentencing in 2017 and told the Capital Journal she should have gotten a stiffer sentence.

“To be honest, justice wasn’t served,” he said. “The sentence should have been longer. We need to send a message and the message is not a slap on the wrist for all the things that were done.”

Last month, current Tribal Chairman Lester Thompson, Jr., said the tribal government is in financial straits and may have to lay off employees in the wake of embezzlement scandal involving the five tribal leaders set for federal trial next month.

“There is a financial shortfall,” Thompson told the Capital Journal. “Actions have been taken to address the shortfall. Some of these actions are going to be — hopefully short-term — layoffs.”

In 2010, three Crow Creek Sioux Tribe officials and a Fort Pierre contractor pleaded guilty to federal charges related to a bribery and retaliation case on the reservation.

Each faced up to 10 years in prison.

According to the Associated Press at the time, Archie Baumann, 59, owner of First Dakota Enterprises of Fort Pierre, pleaded guilty Monday to one count of bribery for attempting to influence the three officials, all of Fort Thompson.

Tribal Vice Chairman Randy Shields, 53, and Treasurer Norman Thompson Sr., 62, each pleaded guilty to a count of bribery. Secretary Thomas Thompson Sr., 34, pleaded guilty to a count of retaliation against tribal Chairman Brandon Sazue, who wore a wire to feed law officers with information on the case.

Court documents allege Baumann was trying to win a $383,000 construction contract to build homes on the reservation, and also lent the tribe more than $200,000.

Baumann gave Thomas Thompson a $2,000 check and gave $1,000 each to Shields and Norman Thompson, through an unnamed party, to influence the council members to continue hiring First Dakota Enterprises and have the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe borrow money from Baumann, according to court records.

In December 2008, the tribal council suspended Sazue from his duties as tribal chairman. He was reinstated after the federal indictments were filed.

Local AAA delivers donated school supplies

Every fall, AAA South Dakota (American Automobile Association – “Triple A”) and its local offices collect donated school supplies to be given to school organizations before the beginning of the school year.

The AAA insurance agency in Pierre is directed by agent Dale Person. “We’ve been doing the school supply donation for a few years now,” said Person. “We collect from our clients, members, and the general public. This year we collected a good-sized box, up and over the top, of a whole bunch of stuff.”

The campaign encourages AAA associates and members, and the public to donate new, unused school supplies. The elementary schools chosen by AAA associates to be supported through the 2019 collection drive are up to the local agency.

“This year we decided to give the donated items to the Pierre Area Referral Service (PARS), who will in turn distribute the items to where it can be used best,” said Person. PARS currently administers the Pierre/Fort. Pierre Food Pantry, Holiday Food Program, Emergency Assistance Program, BackPack Food Program, Senior Food Box Program, and Information & Referral Services. PARS is also the local Salvation Army Service Unit for Hughes and Stanley County.

“AAA cares deeply about the communities in which we live and serve,” said Marilyn Buskohl, manager of public and government affairs. “The school supply drive aims to ensure that students and teachers have what they need when they get to school, which takes pressure off children and families and gets the school year off to a great start.”

Though still pleased with this year’s donations, “Maybe next year, when people hear about it, they’ll be a little more tuned into it,” said Person.

Stanley County hears GOED funding pitch for livestock development

The Stanley County Commission listened to a sales and use tax rebate funding pitch by Scott Amundson, with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), during the commission’s August 13 meeting.

Amundson told the commission that GOED has two sales and use tax rebate programs. This year, these programs were extended to livestock development.

Qualifying counties are free to use the funds as they see fit, with no strings attached, provided two conditions are met: A.) the commission has to okay qualifying applications for use permits. B.) The county has to encourage development of livestock projects. Counties and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will still have to follow existing ordinances, comprehensive plans, policies and procedures.

Only the 22 of the state’s 66 counties that have zoning ordinances may apply for the GOED funds, he said.

Well before any conditional use permit hearing with the county, the owner of a proposed project applies to the Board of Economic Development for a reinvestment payment. Upon completion of the project, the company submits an affidavit. The project owner assigns the sales and use tax rebate to the county. The sales and use tax is distributed to the county.

“We do all the paperwork, not your auditor or anyone else,” said Amundson. “Get your economic developer guy and our representative guy together. The developer pays sales and use tax on the new project’s start-up costs. The maximum the state would collect is $450,000. Most of the project costs will be taxable; resulting in, say, $225,000 of taxes collected. Once the project is complete, the county would receive the sales and use tax that has been collected — $225,000. There is no minimum size to a project, and multiple projects at one time are possible.”

The commissioners will look into such livestock development projects.