Tapio Urges Us to Listen to Werdel-Nelson Recordings—Yes, Let’s!

In his summary of the follow-up documents Education Secretary Melody Schopp provided to the Government Operations and Audit Committee this week pertaining to the GEAR UP/Mid-Central scandal, attorney Paul Bachand makes a strong effort to portray former Indian Education director and attempted GEAR UP whistleblower LuAnn Werdel as unreliable, her successor Roger Campbell as responsible, and Secretary Schopp as a sterling defender of truth:

The email exchanges provided with this correspondence support the prior submission and statements by Dr. Schopp related to the increased oversight of GEAR UP and Mid Central. These emails must be understood in their context. That is why the emails from LuAnn Werdel were provided. Ms. Werdel’s lashing out can only be understood in the context of her contemporaneous apologies and assertions regarding Dan Guericke and Stacy Phelps. To be blunt, the personnel issues surrounding Ms. Werdel had considerable impact on her credibility.

In contrast, Mr. Campbell was considered a credible source, and as I believe you will see through the attached documentation, had the support of the Department in attempting to ensure that the 2011 GEAR UP grant got off the ground on the right foot.

…Finally, if you go back and review Dr. Schopp’s July 24 GOAC presentation, you will see that the timelines for increased monitoring and oversight line up with the concerns raised by Mr. Campbell. Fortunately for Dr. Schopp, it is easy to keep your story straight when you are telling the truth [Paul Bachand on behalf of Melody Schopp, letter to GOAC, 2017.08.28].

I have my own issues with the usability of Werdel’s documented January 10, 2011, warning about corruption in GEAR UP, given her January 11, 2011, e-mail apologies for those statements. We can debate the extent to which her immediate backing off from her January 2011 whistleblowing may be understood in the context of her fear of further retaliation from a well-connected Education Secretary who had already demanded her resignation.

However, it is… problematic to say that, as we try to evaluate the credibility of the Department of Education’s claims about GEAR UP, we must accept as a standard for the credibility of all witnesses the Department of Education’s opinion of those witnesses’ credibility.

Senator Neal Tapio seems unswayed by the Department of Education’s effort to paint LuAnn Werdel as unreliable. He sends out an e-mail to state officials and the press urging us all to listen to the recordings of Werdel’s July 25 and July 26 phone calls with Senator Stace Nelson. I reported on the content of those calls Wednesday. If you like, take Senator Tapio’s advice and listen to the calls yourself:

July 25, 2017:

July 26, 2017:

As we hear in the second call, Senator Nelson took Werdel’s story and her concerns about retaliation seriously enough that he e-mailed the Attorney General the night of the first call to say he was concerned about her safety.

Senator Tapio has listened to those recordings along with all the other information presented to him and other members of GOAC. He now asks GOAC to “suspend any contact with Ms. Werdel until a later time” and offers this positive assessment of her reliability as a whistleblower and witness:

While Ms. Werdel’s initial criticism of the GearUP program was considered less credible by State employees and by the Legislative Audit staff, I consider her brave attempts to expose the corruption of the GearUP program to be commendable and worthy of the greatest respect. It was her willingness to sound the alarm, and hers alone, that accurately predicted future events.

I’ve never met Ms. Werdel, but I know her type. People willing to stand up for what they believe, and fight for it, is who we need in government. I consider her to be a whistleblower and we should take precautions to protect her reputation, respect her privacy and consider concerns for her safety. Additionally, I believe there are federal whistleblower protections that we must legally respect.

The people surrounding the creation, implementation, execution and oversight of this grant should be the focus of our attention [Sen. Neal Tapio, e-mail received by Dakota Free Press, 2017.08.31].

Context is important for understanding the emails from Roger Campbell to Secretary Schopp in 2012. Context is also important in understanding Werdel’s e-mails in 2011. Both Senator Tapio and Senator Nelson have decided to view Werdel’s January 11 “apologies” in the context of what Werdel learned, did, and said about GEAR UP, Secretary Schopp’s January 10 request for Werdel’s resignation, and Werdel’s fears of further career-related retribution. You may add to your context by listening to Werdel yourself and making up your own mind.


11 Responses to Tapio Urges Us to Listen to Werdel-Nelson Recordings—Yes, Let’s!

  1. David Newquist

    The e-mails and other documents, as you reproduced in the previous post, show this entire episode is ensnarled in a “Mean Girls clique.” When the Mean Girls are in charge of the education system, it operates for them. The children are hardly a consideration.

  2. This Tapio fellow seems second only to Mr. Nelson as a self-promoter. I’m just sayin…

  3. Mr. Newquist does point out that there are a lot of mean girls involved in all of this. He does seem accurate with that.

  4. Really great post!

    Stace, I have new found respect for you, and I am grateful for your work. I no longer care at all that you and I disagree on the smaller minded issues. As long as you keep doing this kind of work, I’m with ya.

  5. I’m glad you like the post, Adam!

    On the undercard, it’s interesting to hear how Nelson handles Werdel’s fearful request to remain off the record. She asks to be off the record at the beginning of both the July 25 and July 26 call. In the second call, Nelson responds that he’s not a reporter and that as a legislator, he has certain ethical obligations to report wrongdoing. He thus informs her that he told the Attorney General about what she had told him the night before.

  6. I listened to every second of the audio, and yeah, Stace was up front and clear about who he is and what he’s trying to do – from the very start.

    He has the right mindset and follows good protocol for real investigative work. I think he was entirely professional and effective at achieving the goal – which truly is what’s best for Ms. Werdel and, simultaneously, absolutely everyone else.

    Someone told me, today (when I mentioned this post), “the movie/show Fargo is way more South Dakotan than people give it credit for – only it’s the accounts who manage the state’s money who are the heartless murderous madmen not so much the used car dealers.”

  7. “what’s best for Ms. Werdel”—that’s another key part of the conversation on the undercard. While Werdel feared retribution for speaking up, Nelson said the best way to keep herself safe was to go public with her information. Whistleblowers in South Dakota should pay attention: the one-party regime keeps its unchecked power by scaring people into silence. If people like Werdel speak up, the state will have a much harder time taking any visible action against them.

  8. It’s so true.

    If the only remaining evidence of a serious crime happens to be in the possession of a scared reclusive witness, bumping off that witness becomes tempting to the villains.

    Sharing that evidence with a responsible trusted party, who is certain to see it through proper channels, is the very best form of personal defense. In Ms. Werdel’s case, it’s even better than carrying a gun in her purse.

  9. Let’s get straight about these suspicions that the state is bumping off witnesses. The only three players who’ve ended up dead are Richard Benda and Scott and Nicole Westerhuis. In both cases, evidence had come to light in state offices showing those players had committed crimes. There is no campaign of Mafia hits on mere witnesses to corruption. The only people getting bumped off (if we’re going to entertain that Hollywood hypothesis) are people who already have one foot in a prison cell. Prosecution played right could shut those players up almost as effectively as killing them, and with far less blood and risk (see also Joop Bollen’s plea bargain).

    Tie this back to what MTR and JKC say under our discussion of Post-Janklow Stress Disorder: There are lots of stories about the retribution Bill Janklow dished out. We don’t know how many of those stories are true. But those stories are out there, and by believing them and spreading them, we sustain the PJSD that keeps people from standing up to corruption. The Benda/Westerhuis-hit hypothesis kept LuAnn Werdel silent (or at least off the record) for almost two years. We need to break free of this fear with rational analysis.

    Suicide driven by shame, panic, and fear of prison remains the most plausible explanation for the Benda and Westerhuis deaths.

  10. straight outta ridge

    Werdell asked Nelson if he is a christian? LOL Werdell hangs with a cowboy clique that embraces christianity but they are also some of the biggest hypocrites known,(drinking, drugging, and infidelity).
    I’m further perplexed by Werdel’s allegation of a Gear Up employee being a drugy? Seems to me that since she claims to be Indian and educated, that seeing a long haired male musician would automatically mean that person is a druggy!! Stereotypical thinking if you ask me!!

  11. Indeed, the druggie claim is a bit jarring, not to mention unsubstantiated. The question about Christianity also sets me on edge. Scott Westerhuis would have answered that question in the affirmative, yet he committed al sorts of crimes.