District 5 South Dakota State Senator Neal Tapio says despite months of investigation and poignant testimony, he believes South Dakotans are still not being given the full picture of the events that led to the firing of a state employee who tried to blow the whistle on the scandal-ridden Gear Up Program, a Federal grant program that dominated headlines because of missing money and the apparent murder suicide of the program director and his family in 2015.
Tapio, a Watertown Republican and a member of the Government Oversight and Audit Committee says it’s clear to him that employees who attempted to bring light to the corruption in the Gear Up Program were fired, forced out and prevented from telling the truth about what was happening inside the multimillion dollar program gone awry. Tapio says he’s disappointed at a culture of fear in government that he says often prevents the exposure of wrongdoing on many levels and allows corruption to persist.
“In South Dakota, everybody knows everybody in government, and a disturbing pattern is developing. Keep your mouth shut and protect your own. Nobody takes responsibility. Nobody gets caught or fired for bad behavior.” Tapio said. “Our committee failed to interview the key players of the grant program. Why?”
The official report issued by the GOAC committee contends that mishandling of Gear Up funds and the virtual conversion of the program into a private slush fund was limited to private citizens, implicating the former program director and other employees indicted in an alleged embezzlement plot and coverup, while exonerating state Department of Education employees and staff that had oversight responsibility for the program.
The minority report highlights the failure of the GOAC committee to investigate who within state government was ultimately responsible for the mismanagement, oversight failure, and possible fraudulent activity surrounding the administration of the grant. The report further questions why former state employees and highly paid state consultants, whose sole responsibility was to oversee the grant and the organizations involved in the grant, were declared outside the jurisdiction of the GOAC Committee.
Tapio believes the committee should have been given opportunity to question former South Dakota Education Secretaries, Rick Melmer and Tom Oster, as well as state Indian Education Director, Keith Moore and Gear Up grant writer, Brenda Kuhn. He says many questions remain unanswered about who knew about the problems inside Gear Up and for how long.
“Either they didn’t know what was going on and they should be fired for incompetence, or they knew exactly what was happening and they did and said nothing, in which case they should never work for the State of South Dakota ever again,” Tapio said. “Either way their handling of this disaster was irresponsible, incompetent and possibly fraudulent.”
Tapio is particularly focused on the conduct of former Education Secretary, Rick Melmer who assembled the original Gear Up administrative team, several members of which now face criminal indictment for wrongdoing by the Attorney General.
“Rick Melmer assembled the organizations responsible for the day-to-day operations of the grant. He is connected to every player in the process. The current Secretary of Educations Melody Schopp previously reported to him,” Tapio said.
“More importantly, he was a highly paid consultant for Mid Central Education Cooperative after leaving his position as Secretary of Education. To this day, he works with the state of South Dakota and is a highly paid consultant on multiple areas of Education. The people of South Dakota deserve to know Melmer’s involvement and knowledge of missing or fraudulently spent money.”
Tapio added, “We need to know what Rick Melmer knew and when he knew it.” Tapio said.
Tapio meanwhile praised the courage and tenacity of Gear Up employees, Luann Werdel and Roger Campbell, both of whom attempted to shed light on what they saw as clear problems in the financial handling of Gear Up and suffered for it. Werdel was fired and Campbell left the program abruptly. Tapio believes that both individuals likely faced personal threat and feared for their physical safety in the wake of the death of former Gear Up Director Scott Westerhuis and his family. Tapio believes that Werdel in particular might have been under duress when she recanted an exculpatory email outlining financial irregularities inside the Gear Up operation.
“These people should be remembered and commended heartily by the State of South Dakota for their willingness to place themselves in very dangerous circumstances by revealing the truth of what they knew about Gear Up,” Tapio said.
“Unless the efforts of whistleblowers are honored and their courage is recognized, corruption and mishandling of the public trust is allowed to flourish. Luann Werdel showed amazing courage in her dedication to spreading the truth about the wrongs that she witnessed and the grim reality of a program that was exploited, manipulated and distorted to the enrichment of a select few.” Tapio said.
“I would like to personally extend my thanks and admiration to Luann for her stalwart commitment to doing the right thing, even at great personal risk to her own safety.” Tapio said.
Tapio also believes the Gear Up scandal is an example of predatory bureaucracy on native populations and the deliberate exploitation of an atmosphere of administrative mistrust on reservations, where unscrupulous actors are often able to take advantage of structural deficiencies in management and oversight.
“This program was sold and funded on the premise of compassion and service to native communities,” Tapio said. “I can think of few things more grievously evil than turn a promise of help and enrichment and goodness into a cynical opportunity for exploitation, financial greed, corruption and personal gain.” Tapio said.
“And the people of South Dakota are victims, too, in being denied the full story and the real answers about who is ultimately responsible for allowing this travesty to continue and deepen and spread.” Tapio said.
“What happens when corruption doesn’t rise all the way to the level of criminal charges?” Tapio asked.
“Abuse of power always leads to an erosion of the public trust. And abuse of power must be handled with a full opportunity for public knowledge of the actions of our leaders, both elected and appointed.” Tapio said.
“The people deserve answers.”