It appears that a consensus is finally starting to emerge that something needs to be done in the wake of the EB-5 and GEAR UP scandals and tragedies that have rocked the state over the past three years.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Rep. Mark Mickelson and Attorney General Marty Jackley have all recently addressed the need to take steps to prevent the disastrous consequences of programs that mismanaged millions of dollars and led to the loss of seven lives, including four innocent children.
But it remains to be seen if state government is willing to take the kind of strong measures needed to earn the trust of voters who have learned in the course of the media's coverage of these scandals that oversight, transparency and accountability have not been hallmarks of at least two state programs administered by the executive branch.
Daugaard and Mickelson have taken what amounts to baby steps with legislation approved this year to make state board members and others in state government more accountable when contracts are awarded.
Daugaard's bill, developed by Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, creates a Board of Internal Control charged with developing financial-control guidelines, a code of conduct and a conflict of interest policy for state agencies, legislation that is long overdue but at the same time more of a bureaucratic solution that likely would be administered far from prying eyes.
Mickelson's bill requires members of 22 of the state's 130 boards to disclose potential conflicts of interest when contracts are being awarded although this will not stop them from receiving state contracts. A violation of this law is a Class 1 misdemeanor, a mere slap on the wrist.
Jackley, who recently announced three GEAR UP suspects face charges ranging from falsifying contracts to grand theft, wants the Legislature to enact tougher penalties for those who violate conflict of interest laws or mishandle public funds. It is notable, however, that his office did not introduce legislation in the recent session to address those concerns.
The voices in this now public debate are significant. Mickelson and Jackley are considered serious candidates to replace Daugaard after he is termed out of office in 2018. Jackley also investigated the EB-5 scandal, where even though millions of dollars from immigrant investors remain unaccounted for only one person, Richard Benda, was ever charged. Benda would later commit suicide after shooting himself in the stomach with a shotgun.
Jackley also investigated the actions of Scott Westerhuis, a central figure in the GEAR UP scandal who killed his wife, four children and himself after the state revoked his organization's state contracts, which led to reports of Board of Education members and former members receiving lavish contracts for a program that never delivered on its goal of preparing Native American high school students for college.
It's great that we are now having a conversation on how to best reform state government. But much more needs to be done to safeguard taxpayer money and bring accountability as well as transparency to the machinery of state government.
- New York
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