Rep. Mark Mickelson (R-13/Sioux Falls) is feeling the GEAR UP heat. He must perceive enough rile-up among voters about corruption to move him to propose anti-corruption legislation. Having led the Legislature’s tepid response to the GOED/EB-5 scandal last year with the Benda-Bollen law, Rep. Mickelson wants to extend that tepid response to local governments and boards:
Mickelson sponsored a bill last year that made it illegal for state employees to oversee contracts in which they have a direct financial interest. It also required public disclosure by employees who might have a perceived conflict.
But the bill only applied to state officials. Mickelson said that in the wake of what happened in Platte, the same requirements should apply to local governments and government boards [Jonathan Ellis, “GEAR UP Scandal Spurs Anti-Corruption Bill,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2016.01.09].
The Benda-Bollen law is tepid because it still only slaps corrupt malfeasants with misdemeanor penalties, and it allows the Governor to waive the prohibitions on self-dealing. You don’t beat corruption by empowering corrupt leaders to excuse corruption. You beat corruption by improving oversight and transparency, making sure every contract is fairly bid and published, and then rigorously and publicly documenting the performance of every contractor.
Rep. Mickelson’s response is also a distraction: the problem here is not that local entities like Mid-Central Educational Cooperative are corrupt. Rep. Mickelson wants to shift attention away from Pierre, which owns the GEAR UP problem. Former Secretary of Education Rick Melmer shunted the GEAR UP money to a little educational cooperative back where he grew up in Charles Mix County. Rick Melmer then proceeded to make a tub of money moonlighting for that cooperative. Current Secretary of Education Melody Schopp knew Mid-Central was running GEAR UP incompetently but let them keep mishandling millions in federal GEAR UP dollars for three years before shifting the program to the Board of Regents (you remember, the folks who ran EB-5 in fire-and-forget mode and thus let the EB-5 corruption blossom at NSU). Like EB-5, GEAR UP’s corruption began in Pierre, in state government; legislators fighting corruption need to take on state government.
Rep. Mickelson’s proposal won’t hurt, but it won’t get at the root of the problem. If Rep. Mickelson is serious about tackling corruption, he’ll support Initiated Measure 22, the Anti-Corruption Act, with which we voters can create an independent ethics commission to really romp-and-stomp on corruption in state government. Rep. Peggy Gibson proposed an ethics commission during the 2015 Session, but Rep. Mickelson voted against it, saying that going that far to fight corruption is “an unnecessary step.”