Monthly Archives: October 2015

Too many scandals!

What a day. The governor’s office released its response to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, asking that South Dakota be allowed to stay in the EB-5 immigrant investor program. The Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee learned that state Auditor General Marty Guindon plans to follow wherever the money trail takes him on the GEAR UP scandal involving Mid Central Education Cooperative and the state Department of Education. State Attorney General Marty Jackley announced he’ll hold a news conference Tuesday in Platte to discuss the six deaths of the Westerhuis family that came less than 24 hours after state government terminated its GEAR UP contract with Mid Central. Investigators filed the official death certificate for Mid Central business manager Scott Westerhuis, saying he shot himself in the brain; he previously shot his wife and their four children. And Secretary of State Shantel Krebs explained to GOAC members the problems she inherited when she took office in January; then her predecessor, Jason Gant, followed her testimony at the GOAC hearing by saying he’s proud of what he accomplished. Suddenly I am a crime reporter.

Gant spoke with auditor general’s office but not Krebs

We don’t know yet how their conversation went, but state Auditor General Marty Guidon said today that former Secretary of State Jason Gant spoke with his office about the procedures report audit conducted earlier this year. Gant’s successor, Secretary of State Shantel Krebs, asked the auditor general to look at various matters after she took office in January.

A number of issues were found (read the auditor general’s letter here). Guindon was asked by a reporter today whether Gant responded. “We do not include written responses in our agreed-upon procedures reports. We did provide a copy of the draft report to Jason Gant and discussed it with him over the phone,” Guindon said.

Krebs, asked a similar question, replied, “I do not believe that Gant ever responded. I was not made aware if he did so.” Perhaps we will learn more Friday afternoon when the matter goes before the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee. The GOAC agenda is here. The committee previously sent a letter to Krebs asking her to appear.

Flag’s disappearance was only the tip at SDSoS

Secretary of State Shantel Krebs asked the state Department of Legislative Audit to take a look through the office records after she took over on Jan. 5. Turns out she had good reason to wonder about what occurred under her predecessor, Jason Gant.

The official letter from Auditor General Marty Guindon to Secretary of State Krebs can be found here. The letter’s contents don’t speak well for Gant and his employees.

One of the items covered in the letter is the missing state flag, which we learned today (Wednesday) was recovered on Oct. 8 and had been in the possession of a former SoS employee in Washington, D.C. That is covered in this blog’s previous post.

But the flag is literally just the tip of many problems including financial practices that caught the attention of the auditor general’s office. Money doesn’t add up in some accounts, three laptops are missing, spending was mis-assigned, and there was a contract mess over the Blue Book, to name four general topics.

The Guindon-to-Krebs letter now is in the hands of members on the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee. The legislators will discuss the matter Friday at their meeting.

Meanwhile a spokesperson for state Attorney General Marty Jackley said this morning he intends to proceed in the days ahead with charges involving the flag theft. His Division of Criminal Investigation tracked down the flag.

Jackley previously investigated Gant and his staff in the summer of 2012 on other matters and said he found no evidence of criminal activity. It’s unknown at this point what further might result from the current findings by the auditor general.

The flag caper unfurls

State Attorney General Marty Jackley’s office announced this morning (Wednesday) that the original state flag of South Dakota was missing for at least nine months and was found Oct. 8 in Washington, D.C., in possession of a former employee of the South Dakota Secretary of State office. Charges will be filed. Other details have yet to be released. Here is a photo released from Jackley’s office and a link to his office’s news release, which includes interesting information about the flag’s origin and design.

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Governor sets holiday work schedule

Gov. Dennis Daugaard has issued an executive order that administratively closes state government offices under his control on Friday, Nov. 27, and at noon on Thursday, Dec. 24. For those who don’t have a calendar within reach, those dates are the Friday after Thanksgiving and the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the official holidays in state law.

The end of something and the start of something else

From the sledding hill side of the gulch, looking north toward the State Health Laboratory.

From the sledding hill side of the gulch, looking north toward the State Health Laboratory through Monday’s haze. The bright tan is now-dead Kentucky bluegrass that will be replaced. The green is live Kentucky bluegrass.

View of north end of gulch, where a new trail is being cut through what will be natural-appearing area.

View of north end of gulch, where a new trail is being cut through what will be natural-appearing areas.

A buffalo grass mixture that is the lawn for the State Library / DOE building overlooking the gulch. The buffalo grass mixture was installed a few years ago there and at the Dolly-Reed building along Capitol Avenue. The buffalo grass mixture is mowed; for a few years it was allowed to grow through the spring and summer without mowing or less frequent mowing.

A buffalo grass mixture is the lawn for the State Library / DOE building overlooking the east side of the gulch. The buffalo grass mixture was installed there a few years ago and at the Dolly-Reed building along Capitol /Wells Avenue. The buffalo grass mixture is mowed; for a few years it was allowed to grow through the spring and summer without mowing or with less frequent mowing.

These photos show the current status of Hilger’s Gulch, a Pierre community landmark, as the Daugaard administration prepares to convert much of the Kentucky bluegrass to a mix of native species such as blue grama, buffalo grass and wildflowers, along with prairie shrubs and various small trees. The bluegrass was killed this fall with a chemical and will be re-planted in 2016. The sledding hill and the Governor’s Grove memorial walkway will continue to have Kentucky bluegrass, as will some of the other shoulder-apron areas. The gulch had been undeveloped land prior to then-Gov. Bill Janklow converting it to a walking area some 30 years ago. Some people who live along the gulch’s westside hilltop have opposed the Daugaard plan.

Straightening out state’s (new) election laws

For critics of the final version of SB 69, one package of the election-law changes passed in the 2015 legislative session, the baby went with the bath water. Opponents successfully circulated a referral petition to suspend it from taking effect until voters can decide its fate in the 2016 general election. The referendum put on hold the timetable changes that were meant to provide more time for challenges of candidates’ petitions. It also stalled various other changes that some thought good and some thought bad, such as repeal of the registered-mail allowance for submitting petitions and imposing stiffer requirements for candidates to withdraw in time to be replaced on the ballot. The referral also affected at least one provision in SB 67, another package of election-law changes passed in the 2015 session but without controversy. Now that provision in SB 67 will need to be changed in the 2016 session and will need to be done under an emergency provision that requires two-thirds majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives so it can take effect immediately upon the governor signing it into law. The state Board of Elections gave its support earlier this week to the change that Secretary of State Shantel Krebs will seek come January when the Legislature convenes.

Here’s what that’s all about. SB 69 sought in part to change the petition period for political party candidates seeking nomination for state and county offices in a primary election; the timetable sets when candidates can gather signatures on their candidacy petitions and submit them. The schedule has been Jan. 1 through the last Tuesday of March in the year of the primary election. That remains in effect for 2016 because of the referral of SB 69. The legislation would change that period to Dec. 1 of the year preceding the primary election through the first Tuesday of March. SB 67 meanwhile set a deadline of the third Tuesday in March to challenge a primary candidate’s petition in circuit court.

SB 67 also added these requirements regarding a challenge: This action takes precedence over other cases in circuit court. Any party appealing the circuit court order to the Supreme Court shall file a notice of appeal within ten days of the date of the notice of the entry of the circuit court order. Secretary of State Krebs and the Board of Elections decided they would seek repeal of the challenge deadline, because it would fall before the petition deadline of the last Tuesday in March that remains in effect while the referendum runs its court. The board however endorsed keeping the rest of the language upon suggestion from board member Drew Duncan of Sioux Falls, a Republican.

All of this goes back to the challenge of signatures filed by Annette Bosworth, a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, that was attempted in spring 2014 by blogger Cory Heidelberger, a Democrat now living at Aberdeen, and then-legislator Steve Hickey, a Republican from Sioux Falls who has since resigned from his seat in the state House of Representatives. Time ran too short for the Heidelberger-Hickey challenge to be completed by Circuit Judge Mark Barnett before the deadline for county auditors to prepare their primary ballots. The goal of Krebs’ changes to the petition timetable in SB 69 was to provide a longer opportunity for such challenges. Instead, the referral of SB 69 — which Heidelberger led because he and other Democrats opposed other changes in SB 69 — means the tight window for challenges will remain in place for the 2016 primary elections.

Altogether Krebs and the Board of Elections put their stamp on a package of 18 sets of proposed changes to be considered in the 2016 legislative session. This marks the second consecutive year that Krebs, a Republican, has worked cooperatively with the state board since she won the 2014 election. Her predecessor, Republican Jason Gant, didn’t treat the board with the same respect and tended to unilaterally proceed with his own elections legislation. Krebs seems intent on rebuilding the relationship that existed between the board and secretaries of state prior to 2011.

Sunset ahead for Michael Pangburn

The state Department of Tourism is taking applications through Nov. 13 for director of the South Dakota Arts Council. The post will open in the months ahead as Michael Pangburn retires in February of 2016. He has been director for seven years and joined the council’s staff in 1998. The council has a board of 11 directors and oversees distribution of grants and services to the arts in South Dakota. Funding comes from the National Endowment for the Arts and state government. Arts funding, by the way, was threatened as state government ran into revenue challenges in 2008. The Legislature in 2009 increased the state tax rate on visitor-related business to 1.5 percent, from the previous 1 percent.

FHA’s scorecard on 2015 session

Here is the Family Heritage Alliance’s scorecard for how South Dakota legislators voted on the alliance’s agenda during the 2015 session. Scorecards from other groups will be posted if you send links to bobmercer2014@gmail.com.

The FHA scorecard carries a quote attributed to Ronald Reagan that describes someone who votes with you 80 percent of the time as a friend. Given that standard, the alliance had 13 friends among the 35 senators and 32 friends among the 70 representatives in the House.

The EB-5 documents trail

The past two years haven’t been fun regarding the EB-5 matter. Generally, Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s administration has been somewhat open regarding documents. News reporters have been able to get most questions addressed by the governor’s top staff. There is some railing currently on another blog site about why the governor’s office didn’t issue a news release about the federal EB-5 regulators intending to terminate South Dakota’s regional center. The lawsuit filed Friday against Joop Bollen by the Daugaard administration referred to allegations made by the federal agency, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The reference in the lawsuit against Bollen led the Daugaard administration to release the USCIS 18-page termination notice. Those led to the story in the Sunday edition of the Aberdeen American News and the Monday editions of other newspapers. Granted, approximately three weeks passed between USCIS issuing the termination notice and the document being released. Likewise, two years ago, weeks passed between the Governor’s Office of Economic Development terminating its contract with Bollen’s SDRC Inc. and public knowledge. And in 2013 as well, many months passed between the governor’s office receiving a federal grand-jury subpoena for various EB-5 related information and public disclosure there was a federal inquiry. We now seem to be in a new phase, where the federal government is taking definite action against South Dakota and state government is taking definite action against Bollen. We look forward in the coming weeks to seeing state government’s response to USCIS and Bollen’s response to state government.