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  • 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.

  • What We Learn from Jackley’s Latest Info on Westerhuis Murders and Fire

    Attorney General Marty Jackley released four key pieces of information on his investigation of the apparent Westerhuis murders, arson, and suicide south of Platte on September 17, 2015. AG Jackley’s intent in releasing this new information is to “confirm that Scott Westerhuis was responsible for the death of his family, before setting fire to his home and taking his own life” and to beat back hypotheses that anyone other than Scott Westerhuis is responsible for the grim events of that fatal night. Such hypotheses have ground through the rumor mill, with perhaps even more vigor after AG Jackley’s first big public presentation of findings during his ill-fated press conference/town healing ceremony on November 3, which seems to have raised more questions than it answered.

    For the most part, AG Jackley’s four big revelations (presented via press release this time, not live public speech and Q&A in Platte) tell us tell us that some of our graver suspicions have been nothing but the figments of imaginations looking for diabolical connections where there are simpler, more mundane explanations.

    1. AG Jackley nails down the time of at least one of the crimes, the torching of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis’s house. The mysterious last call from the Westerhuis landline to Nicole Westerhuis’s cell phone was placed at 2:57:54 by her home security system. That home security system placed a similar call to Scott Westerhuis’s cell phone a minute earlier, at 2:56:35. AG Jackley says the security system had been programed to call Scott, then Nicole, if the home fire alarm went off. The fire was thus burning and smoking enough to set off the home fire alarm by 2:56:35. If AG Jackley’s conclusion that Scott Westerhuis shot his wife and children, then set the fire, then shot himself is correct, then Scott Westerhuis killed his family before 2:56 a.m. and, given the absence of smoke in the airways of his corpse and depending on the sensitivity of his fire alarm, would have shot himself near but not much if at all after that fateful moment.

    As AG Jackley reported in November, the Westerhuises’ employer, Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, deactivated their cell phone contracts seven days after their deaths. That move still seems incredibly irresponsible on Mid-Central’s part, given its potential to destroy evidence in a criminal investigation. However, even if Mid-Central had behaved properly, the content of the voicemails left at 2:56 and 2:57 really is irrelevant; AG Jackley now tells us that all that matters is the metadata: what placed the call and what time it happened.

    2. AG Jackley says the white pickup was a tame pheasant chase. KELO-TV’s Angela Kennecke considered it newsworthy that the Clark C-store surveillance video caught a white truck towing a flatbed trailer through Platte, once east, then an hour later west, just before the fatal events at the Westerhuis property on September 17. I considered it not quite newsworthy and disproved Kennecke’s claim that the truck on its first pass was traveling “in the direction of the Westerhuis property….” Kennecke inched that phrase back in her January 1 report, saying that the truck was traveling “in the general direction a vehicle would be going if headed toward the Westerhuis property at 1:28 a.m. that morning” [emphasis mine]. Kennecke explained that the driver of the white pickup had come forward and said he was hauling pheasants to a game preserve.

    Kennecke did not mention the details AG Jackley released today, that the white pickup “delivered a load of pheasants from a farm in Gregory County to a pheasant hunting preserve north of Platte.” North of Platte, as in not south of Platte, where the Westerhuis house was.

    One odd detail is that the pheasants were delivered to the pheasant facility (take your pick of which Platte hunting lodge might be associated with that), but the white pickup’s trailer was empty on the first pass but loaded on the second pass. But that doesn’t matter to this criminal investigation: AG Jackley says the truck driver, the pheasant raiser, and the invoice all agree, that the return trip showed the trailer loaded with empty pheasant crates stacked and secured, and that, most importantly, this truck wasn’t carrying a hit man or Scott Westerhuis’s missing safe. It was just some guy on the road late at night doing his job.

    3. Scott Westerhuis’s safety deposit box held no evidence about the crimes of September 17. You remember the safety deposit box that Scott Westerhuis had maintained for Mid-Central, a safety deposit box that, amidst ongoing investigations into the Westerhuis murders and their own finances, the Mid-Central board thought they could just put their exec Dan Guericke in charge of opening and deciding whether there was anything DCI should see? Yeah, that AG Jackley talks about that box. Mid-Central’s lawyer wised them up, and DCI took a look. Says AG Jackley, “Although the Search Warrant Return has been filed, consistent with the Order to Seal it is not appropriate to disclose the specific contents at this time.  Generally, there was nothing of evidentiary value in relation to the death investigation.”

    We shouldn’t have expected any information about the September 17 murders: if Education Secretary Melody Schopp’s decision on September 16 to cancel Mid-Central’s multi-million-dollar GEAR UP contract triggered Scott Westerhuis’s decision to kill his family and himself (and that’s the implicit connection every media report makes, right, the only dramatic trigger we can discern in public documents, right?), he wouldn’t have had time to stash any relevant evidence at the bank. Scott Westerhuis was in Takini when he learned of the Schopp decision. He was driving back to Platte through the evening of the 16th. He died before bank hours on the 17th.

    4. Jackley still thinks Scott Westerhuis’s safe evaporated. This is part of AG Jackley’s story still smells fishy. AG Jackley’s statement today says multiple witnesses have told DCI about a safe in the Westerhuis house. DCI has found no trace of said safe.

    AG Jackley says “the safe is believed to be similar in nature to the SentrySafe 1100 Fire-safe chest that provides only a ½ hour of fire protection.” The safe thus would have had to have faced a fire that was either hotter than normal fires or lasted longer than half an hour. That fire would have to have been strong enough to destroy that safe but not the shotgun that Jackley says Westerhuis used to kill himself.

    I have the SentrySafe H2100, bought maybe at Pamida. It’s a step up from the SentrySafe 1100, since it is waterproof, and it costs $60. Why would a guy with two security systems and a panic room in his house buy the same crappy entry-level safe as some cheap blogger?

    Come to think of it, if Scott Westerhuis really was running some big financial scam through GEAR UP and Mid-Central, would he really have let multiple people see the safe where he was keeping his most important papers? It seems just as plausible to conclude that this cheap, flimsy safe was a decoy. If Scott Westerhuis had evidence of vast corruption, he kept it somewhere else. (Marty, you guys have run the dogs and metal detector across the remaining Westerhuis office/gym complex and the rest of the property and subpoena’d the crap out Westerhuis’s Internet providers, right?)

    *     *     *

    Attorney General Marty Jackley’s statements today focus mostly on dispelling concerns that anyone other than Scott Westerhuis was involved in the death and destruction on the Westerhuises’ property on September 17. AG Jackley’s statements do nothing to help us understand why those crimes happened. But they emphasize that, three and a half months after the crimes, we have no evidence that supports any of the rumors that someone besides Scott Westerhuis pulled the trigger and lit the fire.

    AG Jackley’s statements tell us nothing about the investigation of what may well be the bigger crime, the corruption in the GEAR UP program and any other finances that Scott Westerhuis managed for Mid-Central Educational Cooperative in Platte. AG Jackley remained mum on the investigation of that side of this case, other than to say the investigation continues. The results of that investigation may help us understand the motives behind the murder, arson, and suicide. More importantly, they may reveal crimes against all of us, abuses of taxpayer dollars and public trust that our Legislature and we the voters will have to do something about.

  • 9/17 Video Shows Mystery Truck Heading East, Not South Toward Westerhuis House

    Platte is full of rumors about strange vehicles around during the wee hours of September 17, when Mid-Central Educational Cooperative business manager and GEAR UP scandal central figure Scott Westerhuis allegedly killed his family, set his house on fire, and shot himself. Angela Kennecke manages to get the first documentary evidence of one such mystery vehicle:

    Surveillance video from Clark station in Platte, South Dakota, 2015.09.17. Screen cap from KELO-TV, 2015.11.13.
    Surveillance video from Clark station in Platte, South Dakota, 2015.09.17. Screen cap from KELO-TV, 2015.11.13.

    According to the owner of the 44 Road Stop Clark station in Platte, a surveillance video shows a white truck pulling an empty trailer past the station at 1:28 a.m. A semi and a car also pass by in the dark of that dark night. Then at 2:23 a.m., a white pickup pulling a trailer with something on it drives by in the other direction.

    Kennecke claims that the truck shown at 1:28 a.m. “drives by in the direction of the Westerhuis property.” My analysis of the video and the map indicate Kennecke is wrong. The camera appears to face south from the station. The 1:28 clip thus shows the truck and empty trailer traveling east on Highway 44/West 7th Street. The 2:23 clip shows the truck and loaded trailer traveling west on Highway 44/West 7th Street.

    The Westerhuis property is three miles south of Platte on 367th Avenue. To go there from the 44 Road Stop, one would go east one block, then turn south on Main Street.

    Aerial image of Platte, South Dakota, from Google Maps; annotations by CAH.
    Aerial image of Platte, South Dakota, from Google Maps; annotations by CAH.

    The 1:28 clip does not show the white truck turning south on Main one block east of the station. The 2:23 clip does not show the white truck turning west onto 44 from Main.

    To say that the truck shown in the 1:28 clip is headed “in the direction of the Westerhuis property” is as accurate as saying that it is headed in the direction of my property in Aberdeen. Each claim posits a turn that the video does not show.

    Go get me the video from Casey’s one block east, at the intersection of 44 and Main, show me that truck turning south at 1:28, or just prove that Kennecke’s 1:28 clip shows the truck braking and signaling right, and we might have a story. Might.

  • Guericke to Open Westerhuis Safety Deposit Box—Better Wait for DCI, Dan!

    Dana Ferguson attended today’s meeting of the scandal-plagued Mid-Central Educational Cooperative in Platte today and got the big news that the MCEC board accepted a resignation from former GEAR UP director Stacy Phelps and non-renewed contracts for Brian Wagner, Doris Stiles, Pam Uecker, and Janelle Stewart. Wagner may be the most interesting of those personnel decisions: based in Redfield, Wagner was another six-figure middleman, right alongside GOP crony Rick Melmer.

    But the most urgent bit of news from today’s MCEC meeting may be at the very bottom of Ferguson’s on-the-spot report:

    The board also voted unanimously Thursday to obtain the contents of a safety deposit box kept at First Fidelity Bank in Mid-Central’s name. Guericke said Scott Westerhuis signed for the box as many as 15 years ago. He said he believed it contains financial documents related to the cooperative.

    Guericke said he would turn over the documents to the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation if they proved valuable [Dana Ferguson, “Board Accepts Gear Up Program Coordinator’s Resignation,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.11.12].

    Uh, Dan? There is a criminal investigation going on. We’re already missing Scott Westerhuis’s safe. You guys at MCEC already destroyed evidence by canceling the phone you provided to Nicole Westerhuis before the DCI could retrieve the last voicemail sent to that device less than three hours before Platte firefighters found the Westerhuis house in flames with the bodies of Nicole, Scott, and their children inside.

    Dan, if your lawyer Scott Swier hasn’t already suggested this, you might want to call DCI before you go to First Fidelity Bank. You might want to bring a couple agents with you, hand them the key in the vault, and step back and let them decide what in safety deposit box might be valuable.