Beleageured Co-op Denies Responsibility, Exits Stage Left
The Department of Legislative Audit has released two important documents: its audit report for the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative for Fiscal Year 2015 and its special review of the scandal-doomed Platte organization.
I’ve just finished reading the 2015 audit. Auditor General Marty Guindon concludes that Mid-Central really, really screwed up. Mid-Central responds by saying the Auditor General is wrong, that they did nothing wrong, and that all blame falls on the dead.
The Auditor General issues adverse opinions—translation: can’t trust them at all—on Mid-Central’s compliance with requirements in running not only the now infamous GEAR UP program but also the Teacher Quality Partnership Grants. Mid-Central gets a qualified opinion—translation: can’t trust some specific statements—on its administration of the Carol M. White Physical Education Program, the College Access Challenge Grant, and the Special Education Cluster Grant. The audit finds “management override of internal controls” took place in all of those programs. It finds errors in “allowable costs/cost principles” and “matching” in GEAR and Teacher Quality Partnership Grants. It finds flawed “subrecipient monitoring” in GEAR UP.
The audit finds Mid-Central had no policies or procedures to identify, stop, or prevent Scott Westerhuis, Nicole Westerhuis, Stacy Phelps, Brinda Kuhn and Lance Witte (not named in the audit, but his conflictual situation is well described on p. 11) from engaging in multiple conflicts of interest that put the integrity of the co-op at risk. Kuhn, for instance, appears to have tens of thousands of dollars for work on GEAR UP and Teacher Quality without any sign that Kuhn’s work was approved by contract by the Mid-Central board.
The auditor identifies numerous questionable costs:
- $97,544.14 in GEAR UP salaries lacking proper documentation.
- $4,165,185 in undocumented GEAR UP grant-matching costs (most of which consist of Microsoft software that Mid-Central claimed as its grant match but which no one interviewed says was actually used for GEAR UP).
- $213,897.25 in Teacher Quality salaries and expenditures, most of which look like undocumented salary double-dips for Nicole Westerhuis and Stephanie Hubers and inadequately supported payments for the Phelps/Westerhuis American Indian Institute for Innovation and BC Kuhn Evaluation.
- $1,262,131.43 in undocumented Teacher Quality grant match, money that apparently should have come from AIII, BC Kuhn, the Rural Learning Center, and Mid-Central. (Interestingly, Mid-Central appears to have squeezed more match than necessary from USD, the Region 3 educational co-op, TIE, and the PAST Foundation.)
- $76,208 in unsupported Wakan Gli grant costs.
- $277,874 in overstated/miscalculated indirect administrative costs to pay Mid-Central employees for work on multiple grants.
- $7,837,967 in illegal withdrawals from Mid-Central’s checking account from January 2007 through September 2015, $1,388,630 of which remains unrestored. Back in Ocotber 2015, shortly after the Mid-Central scandal broke with the Westerhuis murder-suicide-arson, I found the evidence of a fair chunk of those illegal withdrawals in the Mid-Central monthly finance reports from June 2011 through March 2014.
The audit documents on pp. 24–25 the discrepancies in Mid-Central’s FY 2015 annual financial report:
In short, anyone reading Mid-Central’s financials at the end of FY2015 had no idea how much money Mid-Central really had.
The Mid-Central Board of Directors looks at all those findings and says, “Not our fault”:
MCEC takes these allegations very seriously. However, MCEC disagrees with the DLA’s finding of any alleged deficiencies. It is apparent that no amount of reasonable oversight would have detected the complex scheme of fraudulent and illegal activities conducted by Scott and Nicole Westerhuis.
…Scott and Nicole Westerhuis were Platte natives, well respected members of the Platte community, and trusted overseers of MCEC’s financial activities.
Unfortunately, Scott and Nicole Westerhuis were living outside of their financial means. As a result, they engaged in a complex scheme of fraudulent and illegal business activities using their positions at MCEC and AIII. In fact, investigators determined that the scheme devised by Scott and Nicole Westerhuis resulted in them embezzling over $1 million [Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, Response to SDDLA Special Report, 2017.05.17; in DLA audit of Mid-Central FY2015, 2017.05.19, pp. 63–64].
A minor quibble—a lot of the living outside their means was a result of the Westerhuises’ coming up with this brilliant scheme, not the other way around.
The major quibble—Auditor General Guindon isn’t saying Mid-Central needed to engage in fantastic efforts to outfox the criminal masterminds on their payroll. The Auditor General is laying out pretty basic financial expectations: manage conflicts of interest, follow grant rules, make sure every contract and expense goes through the board, and document work and expenses.
But Mid-Central lays out eleven points on the Westerhuises’ masterful, impenetrable deceit to say We didn’t know! We couldn’t know! It’s not our fault! “…[T]here is nothing that the Board could have reasonably done to prevent this complex scheme of fraudulent and illegal activities,” Mid-Central concludes, surely with an eye toward the Black Bear lawsuit seeking to take some money out of their expiring hide.
Just in case anyone still thinks someone should have been able to catch the Westerhuises and Phelps and Huber and Kuhn and other employees in this scam, Mid-Central cites [pp. 60–61the failure of the South Dakota Department of Education to implement proper procedures and controls over GEAR UP identified in the 2014 DLA audit. Mid-Central reminds us that they engaged Schoenfish and Company of Parkston to do their yearly audits (again, with an eye toward that lawsuit and their effort to shift liability to Schoenfish).
And if all else fails, Mid-Central basically shrugs off the Auditor General’s recommendations as moot:
The DLA’s Special Report provides a series of recommendations for MCEC going forward. MCEC and its Board take these recommendations very seriously and thank the DLA for its assistance. However, as of June 30, 2017, MCEC will terminate its provision of educational services to its member schools. Therefore, the DLA’s recommendations for future improvements become moot [Mid-Central, 2017.05.17; p. 67].
Millions of dollars either lost or misaccounted, and Mid-Central says, not our fault, not our problem, we’re outta here.