These are shameful times for South Dakota. As Capitol Bureau reporter Bob Mercer tells in a story we carry today, the report is out detailing how Scott Westerhuis of Platte, to all appearances, killed his wife and four children on Sept. 17, then set the family’s home ablaze and shot himself as well.
That was just shortly after the state Department of Education informed Platte-based Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, the organization where Westerhuis worked, that it was losing its most recent contract of federal dollars. The cooperative received millions in federal funds over a period of years through the state through a program called GEAR UP that was intended to help get more students from high-risk populations, such as Native Americans, to go to college. Some of that money was steered from the co-op where Westerhuis worked to a couple of non-profits that Westerhuis started.
Attorney General Marty Jackley has announced he will hold a news conference tomorrow, Tuesday, Nov. 3, in Platte to answer questions, and well he should – there is a great deal South Dakota doesn’t know about what has happened here. We don’t even know exactly what the wrongdoing was that drove Westerhuis to murder and suicide, and we don’t know whether anyone else was involved in whatever financial wrongdoing took place.
For that matter, there are many questions still unanswered about EB-5, the other scandal simmering on the back burner of South Dakota state government. We still don’t know the exact nature of the wrongdoing that drove Richard Benda to kill himself in October 2013, except that it was apparently misuse of EB-5 funds from that program that seeks foreign investment into economic development projects.
Not only are South Dakotans in the dark about EB-5 – so, apparently, is the federal government. That is why the feds announced in September that they are ending South Dakota’s participation in that program, saying South Dakota has failed to correct past problems.
Our editorial board at the Capital Journal sees common ground in these two scandals in that there seems to be a pattern: Those responsible for overseeing these programs did not take their duties seriously. Some on our board also find it troubling that the Daugaard administration has appeared reluctant over the past two years to want to pursue all of the unanswered questions about what went on with these programs starting during the administration of Daugaard’s old boss, former Gov. Mike Rounds.
The root issue is this: There is a lot of federal money that comes into the state. Probably the vast majority of the federal money flowing into our state is used appropriately and for the purposes intended, and the citizens of South Dakota benefit.
But what about when someone gets a wild idea to divert funds to some other use than what is intended? Where is the oversight? How is it that some South Dakotans in recent years have felt so comfortable misusing millions, thinking that they will not get caught? Yes, we can lay it at the feet of “rogue” employees within the state or the organizations that partnered with the state, but how is it that the rogues felt they could get away with it?
Conservative South Dakota likes to grouse about federal overreach and over-regulation. But South Dakota, starting during the Republican administration of former Gov. Mike Rounds, offers a compelling argument that what was needed here was more federal regulation and oversight, not less. What we had here was shoddy government. The state and its partners did a lousy job managing two programs, and people were tempted into wrongdoing because they knew oversight was lax.
We are all made of crooked timber; the point of having oversight is so that no one is tempted or given the opportunity to break the rules. Because when we lack that oversight, we could end up with what we have now in South Dakota: seven people dead over the past two years because of corruption around federal government programs. Four of those casualties were children.
Let’s get to the bottom of it. Then let’s put the checks and balances in place to make sure it never happens again. And let’s think twice before we parrot that foolish argument about federal over-regulation. That’s not what we have seen in South Dakota.