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October 23, 2017 06:02 PM

Lawmakers Get Caught Up In GEAR UP Web

Vermillion, SD

A map showing a complicated web of connections for those involved in the GEAR UP grant was examined by lawmakers on Monday. 

The South Dakota Tribal Relations Committee paid a visit to a University of South Dakota classroom. They were briefed on what a political science instructor and his students uncovered when it comes to the complicated relationships of those involved in both GEAR UP and education in the state.

KELOLAND's Angela Kennecke first showed you the map in the spring of 2016 and now has lawmaker reaction. 

One thing for sure, everyone who sees the web that reaches across the U.S., is struck by how much some people in education benefited from the GEAR UP grant money, that was supposed to help Native American students. 

Members of the Tribal Relations Committee who saw it on Monday say they're inspired to make sure the misuse of grant money on this scale never happens again.

In addition to studying the web, members of the tribal relations committee also got a look at the electronic version and most were struck by the questions that go unanswered.  

"Would it be nice to have concrete answers; are we ever going to get them? I don't know," Sen. Heinert said.

Sen. Heinert from the Rosebud Reservation leads up the committee. 

"We're used to this as Indian people; we've seen our numbers be counted and grants applied for in the name of us and sadly it never gets to who it's intended to get to and a lot of people make pretty good money; that needs to stop," Sen. Heinert said.

Sen. Lance Russell was astounded by how little is known about how the money was spent once it left Mid Central Educational Cooperative. 

Our KELOLAND News investigation found that the PAST Foundation, an Ohio non-profit organization, got half a million dollars in GEAR UP money. 

"We still have not gotten any information from the state as to why they were paid; verifying they had in fact worked. I'm extremely concerned about our open records provisions in South Dakota and having the tools necessary to prosecute people for essentially graft," Sen. Russell said.

Russell says the web has inspired him to bring better open records laws before the legislature during the upcoming session. 

"We are not as transparent as we need to be and this is Exhibit A,' Sen. Russell said.

For Sen. Stace Nelson this day was a long-time coming.  Nelson convinced the tribal relations committee to make the trip to Vermillion.  He's also a member of the Government Operations and Audit Committee, which held hearings on GEAR UP, but Nelson, often at odds with other GOAC members, says that committee didn't go far enough. 

"It has been a miserable process in trying to drag GOAC into doing its job. Here we have some committee members a little more motivated in trying to look at what happened and trying to formulate fixes for it, not only legislative but also policy and personnel recommendations," Sen. Nelson said.

The Tribal Relations Committee also heard public testimony on GEAR UP from former lawmakers, as well as students who defended Stacy Phelps' work on GEAR UP.
Phelps is charged in the criminal case, accused of altering documents to avoid an audit. 

The committee voted to draft new legislation on open records and new policies on conflict of interest with civil and criminal penalties.

Members argued over whether they could summon and issue subpoenas to witnesses on GEAR UP, but in the end the vote failed. 


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