Guest editorial: Conflict of interest law protecting our handshake state
South Dakota has always been a handshake state.
That is something of which most of us are and have been proud. We assume honesty, and a handshake is a person’s word.
But the world has changed, and so have South Dakotans.
We have felt the pain of being burned at the state government level. There was the former South Dakota cabinet member who was about to be criminally charged, but died from suicide. That was part of the fallout from an investigation into South Dakota’s EB-5 program, in which immigrants would be able to invest in U.S. projects in return for green cards.
With a court case pending, we have yet to hear the last of the state’s EB-5 program.
There have been criminal charges regarding the GEAR UP program as well. GEAR UP is a federally funded program that was administered through the South Dakota Department of Education and the Mid Central Educational Cooperative at Platte.
It is intended to help American Indian students and their families know what is needed for further education after high school graduation. A state audit found financial problems.
The investigation of GEAR UP started through diligence by the state Department of Legislative Audit. As the financial probe proceeded, tragedy came when the bodies of Scott Westerhuis, his wife and their four children were found in their Platte home last year.
The GEAR UP scandal triggered South Dakota’s new conflicts of interest law for members of state boards and commissions.
It was intended to prohibit and penalize self-dealing by state government employees and to not allow personal gain from those who serve on state boards.
Although complicated, this new law is a good start. It also helps honest people identify possible conflict of interest on the boards in which they serve and paves a way to allow them to shed light on such possible conflicts.
That seems to be working, as four members on the South Dakota Board of Education recently filed waiver requests regarding the state’s new conflicts-of-interest law. They wanted to shed light on situations they felt should be disclosed.
Whenever light is shed on government or state boards, it is a good thing. And as we said earlier, that light is needed in today’s world more than ever.
The brighter, the better.
That light allows the rest of us to see who is doing what and how they do business, our business.
We hope more people who serve on these boards think about their own situations, and what might be conflicts of interest and disclose them.
These days, we need more than a handshake.
- South Dakota
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