Jim Kent: South Dakota lands in the news again for corruption

Jim Kent. Photo from Facebook

South Dakota In The News: See Corruption
By Jim Kent

There’s an old adage that says “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. The fact that it’s traced to P.T. Barnum – of “there’s a sucker born every minute” fame - should give fans of the maxim reason to pause.

Although getting any publicity might be good for politicians with few scruples (I know, I know) or TV Reality Show personalities (yes, they’re in about the same category), I’m not sure how well it works for large rural states with relatively modest populations dependent on attracting tourist dollars to their “small town, Midwestern values” while aspiring to garner whatever business start-ups they can to what’s frequently advertised as a model of honesty and efficiency.

These thoughts ran through my mind as I began my workday by reviewing the first e-mail in my queue: “Westerhuis Final Fire and Death Investigation Results." Attached PDF files offered the South Dakota Attorney General’s conclusions on the September deaths of the Westerhuis family in the small town of Platte: murder and suicide accompanied by the family home being torched.

The tragedy came just hours after Scott Westerhuis learned that Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, which he managed, had lost a $4.3 million contract for GEAR UP – a college readiness program for Native American youth; a program currently under a state and federal investigation.

Indian students participate in a GEAR UP program in South Dakota. Photo from Facebook

Generally, this would be enough bad news to last a small town state for some time. Not so here. Just a few weeks after those deaths the federal government announced it was terminating South Dakota’s participation in a program designed to recruit wealthy foreign investors.

That decision is also related to concerns regarding mismanagement of funds – for the EB5 program – dating back two years. A case that also involved suicide. Richard Benda, secretary of tourism and state development for former Gov. Mike Rounds and due to be investigated regarding theft, killed himself with a shotgun…fired into his chest.

Apparently, some in the Platte community question the validity of the conclusion that Westerhuis killed himself just as many questioned whether it was even physically possible for Benda to do so. Either way, these two cases are actually just the tip of South Dakota’s Bad Publicity Iceberg.

Ten days after the feds announced cancellation of South Dakota EB-5 program word came that a 2014 audit of former Secretary of State Jason Gant’s office found $43,000 in federal grant funds missing and used for “unpermitted purposes."

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Then to push that berg just a little bit further into the ship’s bow, news arrived today that the Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the South Dakota Department of Social Services alleging it repeatedly discriminated against well-qualified Native American job applicants because of their race.

I know…hard to believe.

Surveys by a variety of entities, including Fortune Magazine, may consistently place South Dakota in the top 10 most corrupt states – but what do they know? Right?

Yet, somewhere…rising on the wind across the plains I swear I can hear Celine Dion’s voice: “Near, far, wherever you are…I know the corruption goes on.”

And P.T. Barnum is still laughing.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio journalist who currently lives in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Jim can be heard on a variety of radio programs including National Public Radio, South Dakota Public Radio, and National Native News Radio. He is also a columnist for the Rapid City Journal and a guest columnist for the Lakota Country Times. A former editor of The New Lakota Times, and a correspondent with a variety of Native American newspapers, Jim’s commentaries have appeared in national and international publications including U.S. News & World Report, Bergen Record (NJ), Suburban Trends (NJ), New York Daily News, Roanoke Times (VA), The Observer (OR) and American Heritage Magazine.

Find the award-winning Lakota Country Times on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.

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