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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

South Dakota Tries to Clean Up Corruption

PIERRE, S.D. (CN) - After a year of high-profile political scandals in South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard introduced a bill he hopes will help the state government clean up its act.

Daugaard, a second-term Republican, introduced Senate Bill 126 on Thursday. It proposes the immediate creation of a seven-member "State Board of Internal Control," three members representing state agencies and appointed by the governor. The other four members will be the commissioner of the Bureau of Finance and Management, the state auditor, a Board of Regents administrator's designee, and a member appointed by the chief justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Democrats blasted the bill as too little, too late. State Rep. Peggy Gibson, D-Huron, who has been pushing her own ethics bill for five years, bluntly called South Dakota government "a little Mafia," and said Daugaard's proposed board provides no real oversight of the executive branch, as the governor would appoint most of its members.

Daugaard's board would be tasked with creating and maintaining "(1) Guidelines for an effective system of internal control to be implemented by state agencies that is in accordance with internal control standards; (2) A code of conduct for use by state agencies; and (3) A conflict of interest policy for use by state agencies."

S.B. 126 also calls for all grant agreements to be posted publicly on an agency website and urges government employees to act as whistleblowers, informing supervisors, the attorney general, or the Department of Legislative Audit of any perceived governmental corruption.

This comes after a rough few years for South Dakota, whose immigrant investor EB-5 program was shut down in October due to corruption .

That came the month after Scott Westerhuis, chief financial officer of Mid-Central Educational Cooperative and administrator of a state Native American education program, GEAR UP, killed himself and his family after a legislative audit of the program.

GEAR UP is a federal grant program to help Native American students attend college. South Dakota's GEAR UP program is under investigation due lack of progress despite the more than $6 million in federal money it has received since 2005.

These government blunders inspired Daugaard to call his bill "necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety," and declaring the issue "an emergency."

Rep. Gibson asked why the state has no code of conduct to this day.

"They're just conducting business without any code of conduct?" Gibson told Courthouse News. "There are conflicts of interests all over state government."

Gibson called Daugaard's proposed board "too internal," and too beholden to the governor.

"The only member that would have half a chance of being objective is the one appointed by the chief justice," she said. "It's government checking on government."

Calling South Dakota's government "a little Mafia," Gibson added: "Nobody can go against them. So it's bound to be corrupt."

Gibson said an accountability board should include members of the Legislature as well as governor appointees.

The Legislature this week will debate her proposal, House Bill 1227 , for a South Dakota Government Accountability Committee.

"[Legislators] are accountable to the people, but the governor's board would be accountable to the governor, and everyone works for the governor," Gibson said.

"How do you make a complaint when you know you could lose your job, and your house, and your family? Do you think they're going to expose anything? Hell, no."

The board Gibson envisions would "conduct hearings, conduct audits, subpoena witnesses and have them testify under oath. ... It would be a safer place for people to go and not have to worry about retaliation."

Daugaard's office did not respond to an emailed request for comment sent Monday morning.

Yet another measure to curb government corruption, The South Dakota Government Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act , will go straight to voters on the November ballot. It calls for full disclosure of campaign donors and expenditures and proposes its own ethics committee to keep an eye on government. It also seeks greater citizen participation through a program that would give voters two $50-dollar " democracy credits " they could give to candidates of their choice.

South Dakota is one of only eight states that do not have an ethics commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures . This is a contributing factor to its consistently low ratings on state integrity scorecards.

In 2015, South Dakota ranked 47 th in the nation for government accountability according to the Center for Public Integrity, failing in 9 of the 14 categories considered.

Still, that was better than its 49th place showing in 2011.

Whether it comes through Daugaard's bill or Gibson's or a voter initiative, perhaps a chance for the state to move up the list is on the horizon.

It doesn't have a hard score to beat.

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