South Dakota Corruption Board Gets Down

PIERRE, S.D. (CN) — South Dakota’s new Board of Internal Control, created by the Legislature this year to clean up government corruption, convened for the first time this week.
     The Internal Control Board was one of many suggestions bandied about by lawmakers after a year of high-profile scandals that included the shutdown of the state’s EB-5 immigrant investor program and misappropriation of funds from federal GEAR UP grants to benefit Native American students.
     In both scandals, prime suspects committed suicide. The director of GEAR UP also killed his family and burned his house.
     Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, endorsed creation of the board, and the Republican-dominated Legislature created it.
     The agenda on the first board meeting Monday included educating the appointed board members on the definition and purpose of “internal control” and reviewing the governor’s drafted Conflict of Interest and Code of Conduct policies, which are to apply to all state agencies.
     The Code of Conduct seems to have been crafted with the recent scandals in mind, as it tells state employees not to use their official positions for personal gain.
     “No person acting in any capacity for a state agency shall use the funds, property, equipment, supplies, or labor of the State for a purpose which is for the private benefit of such person or any other individual or group of individuals unless the same benefit is available to the general public on equal terms or the use is in accordance with State policies and/or ordinances.”
     The proposed Conflict of Interest policy clarifies situations in which a conflict of interest could arise, tells employees never to accept gifts or other benefits from entities hoping to do business with the state, and requires them to pay for their own meals when they meet with potential clients, customers or other associates.
     “It is the policy of the State of South Dakota (herein referred to as the State) that in all cases, persons acting in any capacity for a state agency will perform their duties for the benefit of the citizens and constituents,” the code states. “They shall conduct the operations of the State with loyalty, integrity, and impartiality, without allowing prejudice, favoritism, or the opportunity for personal gain to influence their decisions or actions or to interfere with serving the public interest.”
     It adds: “A primary goal of the State is to uphold the public trust.”
     State auditor and board member Steve Barnett said the mere existence of the board should curtail corruption.
     “Its work in the development and implementation of clear standards and policies that our employees must adhere to can have a big impact,” Barnett said. “I also think employees will appreciate having a place to go if questions or concerns arise regarding conflicts of interest.”
     Critics, including state Rep. Peggy Gibson, D-Huron, claim the new board it is too insular to be a true watchdog for government corruption, as majority of its members were appointed by the governor.
     “It’s government checking on government,” Gibson said in an interview in February.
     She proposed an alternative accountability board to be run by the Legislature.
     But Barnett left the first meeting feeling optimistic.
     “I was encouraged by the amount of participation from agencies throughout state government,” he said. “It’s my hope that will continue as the board’s work progresses. I am also encouraged that this process is now under way. The creation of the board underscores the importance of internal controls and lays the groundwork for implementing effective and meaningful standards statewide.”
     The seven-member board includes one appointee of the chief justice, a Board of Regents representative, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Finance and Management, the state auditor, and representatives from the departments of health, social services and education.
     The board will meet monthly, with the new policies set for adoption in July, according to a work plan posted on the state’s Boards & Commissions portal after the Monday meeting.
     The plan and the policy drafts, however, have been removed from the site.
     All state agencies receiving grant money will have to abide by the policies. In addition, the state’s grant agreements will be posted for public review online starting in July.

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