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Ecoffey: Media Miss Cultural Points, Do Jackley’s Anti-Indian Bidding in GEAR UP Prosecution Coverage

Lakota Country Times editor Brandon Ecoffey is one of the few voices in the press who has spoken up in defense of Stacy Phelps, the former GEAR UP administrator now charged with felony conspiracy and falsification of evidence in his handling of federal grant money intended for American Indian education.  Ecoffey says the media’s coverage of Attorney General Marty Jackley’s release of evidence of spending by Phelps’s American Indian Institute for Innovation may miss a crucial point about the nature of the GEAR UP summer program and the American Indian kids it serves:

Last week KELO again created more click-bait for their Facebook page when they produced a headline that read “State: Phelps Spent More Than $200k in Gear Up Grant Money On Meals, Personal Items.” Now the headline reads exactly the way the State wanted it too. It makes it seem like Phelps had simply went on a spending spree where he was living lavishly by shopping at Sam’s Club and scamming the tax-payer out of tens of thousands with meals at the “swanky” Olive Garden. It makes me wonder if KELO had ever taken the time prior to all this to visit a Gear Up summer program prior to this? Did they know that many of the kids who attended this program would come with little more than the clothes on their backs and that the program would supply these kids with what they needed? KELO must be aware that many Lakota students come from homes that are so poverty ridden that school supplies would never be a priority in a family’s budget. Then again maybe they are as out of touch with our people as it seems [Brandon Ecoffey, “Has the AG’s Office Ever Backed Native Issues?Lakota Country Times, 2016.06.30].

Ecoffey’s concern aligns with a point raised by Dakota Free Press commenter Donald Pay, that what looks like excessive spending on meals from our perspective may be an expression of normal Lakota cultural practice:

I worked for an Indian organization one summer. One of the things I noticed was that when board members or others working with us came to Rapid City, the organization would take people out for lunch or dinner to conduct business. I thought it was excessive. In my white way of thinking you could just do business in the office and have people go their merry way. I came to realize that feeding folks was part of the cultural norm among Native Americans [Donald Pay, comment, Dakota Free Press, 2016.07.03].

I’m not sure potlatch philanthropy and multiculturalism qualify dinner at Seattle’s Space Needle as an acceptable use of federal education grant money. One gains status from giving one’s own resources, not grants from Uncle Sam.

But we can certainly understanding Ecoffey’s concern about cultural bias from a Native-detached media that could be sitting up and barking for a Native-hostile Attorney General:

Those of us out here on the western side of South Dakota have learned to take a wait and see approach to any case filed against a Native person by the office of Marty Jackley. Each time there is an issue involving Native interests his office has conveniently taken the side most detrimental to us. Just look at the stances the state has taken against the Indian Child Welfare Act and in favor of the Keystone pipeline. Are there any issues that the AG’s office has decided to back Native people on? [Ecoffey, 2016.06.30]

On Thursday, the Board of Regents heard a generally positive report on GEAR UP’s recovery under Regental management, prompting Regent Harvey Jewett to ask, “No checks to casinos?” On Friday, GEAR UP wrapped up its first post-scandal summer program at Black Hills State in Spearfish. The Regents, running GEAR UP for the first time after several years of apparent fiscal mismanagement by the Mid-Central Education Cooperative in Platte, cut the academic camp from six weeks to three and cut participation from nearly 300 to 98. The new GEAR UP will reach more students with four regional programs for middle-school students. Some schools held off participating, telling new GEAR UP co-director June Apaza they want to see how the Regents do in their first year before recommitting to the scandal-stained program.


  1. Paul Seamans 2016-07-04

    I agree with Donald Pay that it is the Indian way to provide a meal at any get together. I don’t think that I have ever been to a doings put on by members of the Oceti Sakowin when I have left without being fed.

    If a person goes to a meeting put on by the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota it is considered rude to leave before the meeting is officially over. That includes the meal afterwards.

    Brandon Eccoffey’s assessment of Marty Jackley has a lot of truth to it.

  2. straightouttaridge 2016-07-04

    Interesting, I won’t comment till the “fair” trial is over.

  3. Baby Moon 2016-07-04

    Brandon might be related to Stacey or there is some other close tie there that, in my opinion, clouds his journalistic judgment. Was his piece an Op-Ed or was it purporting to be “news” (didn’t read it just yet myself)? Just factor that into your assessment of what is going on because although it is undeniable that South Dakota’s AGs have a history of being the biggest Indian fighters around (No S—, Sherlock) and Jackley follows in a similar vein I don’t find it acceptable to scapegoat him and the media in the GEAR UP matter as a way of taking the focus off of some blameworthy behaviors on the part of Phelps. I just want to see SOMEONE get a degree out of this program and go on to become gainfully and productively employed in their field of choice. For that not to have happened yet tells me all I need to know about GEAR UP.

  4. Mark Winegar 2016-07-04

    GEAR-UP has new management but its hard to see substantive change. I’d like to see a real commitment to scholarships.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-07-04

    BM: Ecoffey’s article is clearly labeled editorial.

  6. Paul Seamans 2016-07-04

    Marty Jackley has filed an amicus brief in support of TransCanada’s suit of President Obama for denying the Keystone XL. Is it part of the Attorney General’s job description to file such briefs in support of corporations? I would guess not. I view this amicus brief as a swipe at a Democrat president. I view his coming late to the party on GearUp as being protective of the SD Republican party.

    I do not trust this guy or his opponent, Mark Mickelson, in their run for governor. At this time I would opt for Shantel Krebs.

  7. mike from iowa 2016-07-04

    This is not the first time Obama or his agencies — particularly the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency — have been sued by the states for actions intended to reduce pollution or take action on climate change. The Waters of the United States Rule has been targeted. The Clean Power Plan is at the courts. The Mercury Rule went to the Supreme Court.
    “At every step, he is sued,” Snape said. “Every. Single. Time.”

    Jackley joined Montana,Nebraska,Kansas,Chokelahoma and Texas in
    the amicus brief.

  8. The King 2016-07-04

    Show me an assessment report for the old Gear Up program that includes the number of students that went to and graduated from college and then I will listen to Ecoffey’s apologist views. Phelps was Robin to Westerhuis’ Batman.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-07-04

    Hold your horses, Paul—before you go picking Shantel, let me offer you a Democratic ticket with a little more credibility on Keystone XL, eminent domain, American Indian rights, corruption, and other issues.

  10. Roger Cornelius 2016-07-04

    The allegations and indictment of Stacey Phelps for theft is hardly on the same level of injustice with the state as Jackleys’s challenges to Keystone XL, his refusal to prosecute on the Indian Child Welfare Act or voting rights.
    With regularity the media reports on embezzlement charges against tribal members for various programs the tribes manage.
    Yesterday on Facebook I read an article that reported four tribal members that embezzled nearly $90,000 in funds from the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s energy assistance fund. Can you imagine the relief that would have been provided to families in need of heat in the winter?
    While Donald Pay is correct in that food is a deep part of tribal culture it seems that the amounts spent by Stacey is excessive and doesn’t report that all these meals included Indian students.
    Like Cory said, philanthropic actions from your own check book and heart, now at the hands of grants and donations.
    It is very much like Donald Trump raising millions of dollars for Veterans and than acting as if he was the sole benefactor.
    When I read about excessive spending and abuse in government programs, whether they be tribal, state or federal, it sickens me that those funds were not used for intended purposes and what could have been accomplished had they been.
    Jackley is an ass of biblical proportions, but that does not excuse the actions of Stacey and all others involved in the Gear Up scandal.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-07-04

    I like how Roger balances the scales. The AIII expense reports look as fishy as the receipts showing Richard Benda taking potential EB-5 clients to the go-go bars in the Philippines at two in the morning. I agree with Ecoffey that some of the expenses (like the big tabs at Walmart and maybe even Best Buy) could be perfectly reasonable program expenses to feed and equip low-income kids for the summer camp… although even there, the hard-headed federal auditor could justifiably ask AIII/MCEC/DoE to demonstrate the impact of dining out at Golden Corral on college readiness. A glance at all the steakhouses on the expense list, not to mention all the expensive gear left in Scott Westerhuis’s gym, should make us go hmmm and obligate Phelps to explain his use of public dollars and his knowledge of and participation in Westerhuis’s financial scheme.

    That said, even if the evidence is what it appears to be and Phelps is guilty of some kind of nefariousness, Ecoffey is still entirely correct to say Jackley is no friend of Indian Country. No crime committed by tribal members excuses Jackley’s tolerance of (participation in?) South Dakota’s violations of ICWA, his fronting for Big Foreign Oil, his scapegoating of Brandon Taliaferro and Shirley Schwab, and other bad acts that should easily persuade every tribal voter to mark someone other than Jackley on any ballot.

    The fact that the chief prosecutor is an SOB does not absolve that every defendant he brings to court. (See also Jackley’s prosecution of Annette Bosworth.)

  12. Donald Pay 2016-07-04

    Well, I’d like to know how much of the food money went to Phelps versus how much was given out to others. Then let’s look at how the money was spent by the white crooks in this caper. I would hypothesize that Phelps doled out most of the expenses for food to others, so he’s not necessarily personally corrupt, just following different cultural norms. Not sure if the data on this is available.

  13. Paul Seamans 2016-07-04

    I stand corrected Cory. Shantel would be a much better candidate than the announced clowns in that “other” party. I look for the good party to field some excellent candidates. And I will vote for them.

  14. Steve Sibson 2016-07-04

    “American Indian rights, corruption”

    Gear Up shows those two go hand in hand.

  15. Spike 2016-07-04

    “White corporate privilege, corruption”

    EB-5 shows those two go hand in hand.

  16. Spike 2016-07-04

    2 of the 3 people indicted on Gear-Up are not American Indian. .. Sibson.

  17. Spike 2016-07-04

    Enron makes Gear-up look like child’s play.

  18. Spike 2016-07-04

    Bernie Madoff was NOT involved in “American Indian Rights”.

  19. Michael Wyland 2016-07-05


    The depiction of SD GEAR UP as a “summer program” should be done carefully, since the summer program element of SD GEAR UP (as designed in the 2011 federal grant application) was intended to be only one part of a comprehensive, year-round effort that served many more students than those who attended the summer program component.

    Depicting SD GEAR UP as a ‘summer program” does two things: 1) it ignores the program’s elements as represented by the SD Dept. of Ed. to the federal government; and 2) it focuses attention on the “sexy” element of the program that its former leaders want everyone to see.

    A thought about meals. My firm used to prepare federal grants for South Dakota entities, and meals were always problematic. Most federal agencies explicitly deny grant funding requests for food and drink, even when associated with approved program events like training sessions. This means that agencies receiving grant funds either need to use non-federal funds for meals or get “creative” with the “indirect costs” components of their budgets. How “creative” they can get is an ethical and legal gray area, as is whether local funds used for meals would be allowable local match for federal funds.

    NOTE: BIA grants and grants explicitly made through federal Native American initiatives (which, BTW, GEAR UP is not) are often more lenient on the “no meals” restrictions.

  20. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-07-05

    Good points, Michael. I keep leaving out the year-long classroom-enrichment portion of the program, which happens under nearly everyone’s radar. Those in-school activities don’t provide easy media opportunity the way the closing ceremony for the summer program does.

    So the federal Department of Education would look askance at a straight-up request from the Board of Regents to use GEAR UP grant dollars to buy meals for contractors, right?

  21. Michael Wyland 2016-07-05


    Not necessarily. *Travel expenses* for staff and contractors are usually OK, within reasonable limits. Travel expenses may include meals as well as lodging and transportation. Reimbursement levels for travel-related meals is subject to various federal schedules that generally take time of day as well as geography into account.

    A federal grant budget includes a travel budget section that includes in-state and out-of-state travel costs (calculated separately) and specifications (how many trips, where, why, how often).

    Travel reimbursement for each participant attending a meeting is different from the program requesting reimbursement for food provided at a meeting attended by multiple people. The feds assume they can better account for the funds and the reasonableness of the expenditure if they can be tracked to a specific person.

  22. Vic 2016-07-10

    Phelps is a control freak. This money was in his control and was spent by him on meals for his friends and family. He has at least half a dozen young men that are never far from his side and they would do anything for him, anything. He feeds them well and they drive nice vehicles. He has also gained a lot of weight in the last couple of years. I sat down with several elders who say serving food at meetings is about the same in the native world as it is in the white world, sometimes yes, sometimes no, but not usually expensive. Just keeping it real folks.

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