The powers that be are having a hard time spinning the controversy involving Mid-Central Educational Cooperative’s handling of millions of dollars of federal GEAR UP grant money and the apparent murder-suicide perpetrated by MCEC’s business manager Scott Westerhuis. Former New Mexico Congresswoman Heather Wilson, who now owes her livelihood to the State of South Dakota for making her president of the School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, comes on KELO-TV to say GEAR UP is a great program for helping American Indian kids get ready for college. GEAR UP certainly seems like a great program, with accelerated classes and a summer camp to give Indian kids a rigorous education and a preview of campus life. However, the pack of cronies who managed those millions of GEAR UP dollars have yet to provide either the feds or the press with firm evidence that their well-paid efforts are really increasing the number of Indian kids going to college.
Even Wilson can’t step away from the mic without saying something went wrong with MCEC’s handling of GEAR UP and that she didn’t do it:
“Our focus is on the students and the students’ experience,” Wilson said. “It sounds as though there were some problems with the administrative side, the business side. That’s not our thing. It’s not our role. But we do see benefits for the students. And if we can be helpful in trying to make sure that stays, we certainly are open to doing what we can” [Kevin Woster, “GEAR UP Program Praised for Benefits to Students,” KELO-TV, 2015.09.28].
The School of Mines received $155K in GEAR UP money in September 2012, $149K in May 2013, $200K in meal reimbursements in August 2013, $250K in May 2014, $133K in September 2014, $168K in May 2015, and $222K in August 2015. That’s 1.12 million dollars—why wouldn’t Wilson, who came on board at Mines in June 2013, want to keep that train rolling?
One of the cronies who may be closer to whatever went wrong at MCEC, Rick Melmer, didn’t do himself any favors with his conversation with Angela Kennecke last night. Apparently he made so much money consulting for MCEC (plus a car!) Melmer can’t remember it all:
Melmer says he put in about 10 hours a week on GEAR UP starting in July of 2013; chairing the advisory board and giving technical advice on the program to Mid Central. But according to GEAR UP monthly meeting minutes, Melmer was paid a GEAR UP stipend from August of 2012 through May of 2013.*
Kennecke: If you had started working in August of 2012…
Melmer: It was July of 13, was my first month with Mid Central Coop.
Kennecke: Okay, I’ve got…
Melmer: 13, 14 and 14, 15.
Kennecke: I’ve got in 8/14/12 there was a payment of $1,000.
Melmer: I don’t know what that would be. I honestly don’t.
Kennecke: And then a stipend in 10 of 12 for $1,000.
Melmer: In 10 of 12? For me?
We showed Melmer the payment lines taken directly from Mid Central Minutes, but Melmer said they were wrong.
Kennecke: So you weren’t working for them in 2012?
Melmer: No, I was employed at USD; I was the Dean of the School of Education [Angela Kennecke, “Melmer Answers Questions About GEAR UP Work,” KELO-TV, 2015.09.28].
Kennecke and Melmer both should have read my September 23 report on MCEC’s payouts to Melmer: He received nine $1,000 GEAR UP stipends from August 2012 to June 2013.
Kennecke can be excused for missing a month. But Melmer forgetting nine thousand-dollar payments? I see limited possibilities:
- Melmer really forgot, which doesn’t inspire confidence in his ability to manage public dollars;
- Melmer is lying, which doesn’t make sense, because why risk lying about something we can look up so easily; or
- MCEC’s books are really screwed up, meaning lots more money may have gone for things other than direct benefit to American Indian students, things that business manager Scott Westerhuis and his wife and assistant business manager Nicole Westerhuis died before explaining.
And then there’s Keith Moore, Melmer’s pal and former state director of Indian education, who drew a $4,000 monthly stipend and a $148K contract from MCEC’s GEAR UP pot. Asked by Kennecke what he did to earn that money, he offers the kind of textbook admin-speak that suggests the real answer is nothing:
My contract with Mid-Central Education Cooperative was to provide senior-level leadership for organizational direction and programming and had nothing to do with financial decision-making or business administration. (My role was primarily to provide guidance in collaboration between partners and strategic program planning. I helped individuals with communication issues within and outside the organization and was responsible for assisting with developing meeting agendas for the advisory board.) [Keith Moore, quoted in Kennecke, 2015.09.28]
Hmm… provided guidance and leadership, but didn’t actually administer the business or make decisions? If a guy who writes that vaguely can get paid six figures to “help individuals with communication issues,” I could make millions as a communications consultant. Sign me up, GEAR UP!
Wilson’s running for cover, and Melmer and Moore are stumbling after her. Let’s hope the press keeps digging so we can get to the bottom of what Scott Westerhuis and MCEC did with our tax dollars.