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Werdel Says Apologies to Schopp Were Bogus, Alarm About GEAR UP Corruption Was Real

Angela Kennecke gets former Office of Indian Education director LuAnn Werdel to finally come on camera to talk about the contradictory signals she sent about mishandling of GEAR UP funds at the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative back in 2011.

Recall that last week, the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee (which meets today in Pierre for a surely contentious hearing) released written responses (and non-responses) to questions about the GEAR UP/Mid-Central scandal from surprisingly still-Secretary of Education Melody Schopp. Schopp’s submission included e-mails from Werdel from January 10–11, 2011, when Schopp assumed office and asked Werdel to resign. Werdel complained in writing of corruption in the management of the GEAR UP and College Access grants, then contradicted her statements with a series of apology e-mails in which she signaled her “utmost confidence” in Mid-Central exec Dan Guericke and GEAR UP program manager Stacy Phelps (both of whom now face felony charges and will likely be introducing Werdel’s apology e-mails into evidence for their defense).

Werdel tells Kennecke that she didn’t mean those apologies:

“The only mistake I made in all this was sending out those emails apologizing. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have apologized,” Werdel said.

Werdel says she only apologized on the advice of a mentor because she was worried about the repercussions and her own future in Indian education.  She also wrote an email to the U.S. Department of Education expressing confidence in Dan Guericke and Stacy Phelps to run a different grant program.

I’m tying up loose ends. I’m still fearful for friends and colleagues working on these grants, not wanting their livelihood to be impacted.  Never once in that email did I say I expressed confidence in Stacy and Dan about GEAR UP or College Access [Angela Kennecke, “Former Education Official Explains Her GEAR UP Warnings,” KELO-TV, 2017.08.28].

Ms. Werdel, I’d say your mentor gave you some bad advice. We have on the record two contradictory statements that give Schopp and the state cover from accusations that they had credible warnings about corruption at Mid-Central in January 2011.

Never apologize if you don’t mean it. Take your lumps, but stick with what you believe.


  1. Jenny 2017-08-29 09:03

    Being the lone whistle blower can be fearful and intimidating when you feel like no one else is on your side and your job is on the line.
    No one else was speaking up. No one else to turn to, you don’t dare question the higher ups. Many employees have been in this fear-driven kind of environment before. A lot of us can relate, this is sadly all too common.
    This will keep happening in SD state govt especially when there continues to be a one-party govt and a governor and representatives that do not seem concerned at all.

  2. Jenny 2017-08-29 09:16

    South Dakotans have this naivete that its leaders can do no wrong. To this day, no South Dakotan is really upset about Daugaard or Rounds for the last 10 year of corruption that has gone on under their watches. Oh it was the other guy, not them, just one bad apple.
    Many people should be fired, but b/c it is such a small state everyone becomes friends with people that should be doing their jobs better and no one wants to fire anyone. It is that cozy in SD state govt, it really is. Then people laugh at Stace Nelson b/c he’s speaking up in his Stace Nelson like way. Stace is doing what more of its leaders should be doing but South Dakotans in their ignorant naive way think Stace is just embarassing and obnoxious. SD politicians can’t possibly get upset at their sweet DOE leader Meloday Schopp because she is their friend. It really is this kind of atmosphere South Dakota. Listen to Stace, listen to Billie Sutton, they could tell you how Pierre operates.

  3. Roger Elgersma 2017-08-29 11:15

    In a state where you might accidentally commit suicide if you anger the powers that be, an apoligy might by forced.

  4. Roger Elgersma 2017-08-29 11:21

    I got divorced twenty five years ago. Told people that the judges were wrong. Moved to Minnesota last winter and now a couple of my new neighbors tell me a judge from South Dakota came to tell all my neighbors lies about me. The judge from South Dakota apparently did not know that I lived here in Pipestone twenty five years ago and had a great reputation. Thought he could lie to cover up court mistakes and make my life difficult because I told. So the court was just wrong one more time. They should grow up and be responsible. But it is difficult if the powers that be are slandering you behind your back. Don’t blame Werdel, but question apologies that are to totally different from what is being apologized for.

  5. David Newquist 2017-08-29 16:47

    South Dakota has laws specifically designed to conceal corruption When the State Treasurer complained that the Janklow administration had bank accounts that it refused to reveal to the Treasurer, Janklow quickly got Mike Rounds to introduce and guide through the legislature laws that would make it a criminal offense for any state employee or official to reveal the misdeeds and collusion of any state agency doing business. Those laws have come up again with the Gear Up embezzlements, as the state auditor cites them as a reason he cannot report on any criminal activities his auditors have found. From Bob Mercer’s report on the appearance of the Auditor before the Government Operations and Audit Committee:
    “Guindon said his office remained bound by various confidentiality provisions of state law, even though his auditors were allowed to look at the accounting records.
    “He said he couldn’t disclose to legislators what organizations his auditors investigated or what banking records were analyzed.”

    When people fear losing their careers for reporting criminal activity, we laws that provide substance to three fears.

  6. Porter Lansing 2017-08-29 19:40

    People steal mostly for one reason. Because they think they can get away with it. The laws Prof. Newquist notes above no doubt enticed Scott Westerhuis into believing he could “get away with it”. What’s even more tragic is that had he not gone on a murderous rampage, he probably could have gotten off with a light sentence and some professional embarrassment. The GOAC committee is de facto defending a murderer, misdirecting the investigation and ignoring witness subpoena obligations just to keep the truth about these laws quiet and their political party from appearing culpable. All in a days work, huh Sen. Peters?

  7. grudznick 2017-08-29 20:04

    Mr. Lansing, I was under the impression that the GOA committee could only subpoena legislatures and people could just ignore it if they choose, and they can only investigate things that help them pass new laws. I think Mr. Nelson is confused about his role and think’s he is a grand jury or some sort of French Inquisition.

    Have you seen the pictures of Ms. Peters in Washington DC?

  8. leslie 2017-08-29 21:15

    Dave please cite laws Janklow had “Rounds … introduce and guide through the legislature laws that would make it a criminal offense for any state employee or official to reveal the misdeeds and collusion of any state agency doing business.”

  9. leslie 2017-08-29 21:23

    David, do you think Rounds and Daugaard used these laws you mention to protect from liability for EB5 or MCEC shenanigans?

  10. grudznick 2017-08-29 21:29

    This state auditor, Mr. Barnett, is running for something else which is why is is probably afeared to come out and discuss the secret bank accounts.

  11. David Newquist 2017-08-30 09:20

    Those laws were cited by the Auditor as the reason he would not comment specifically on his investigations. Here is some background and the laws in question:

         1-27-29.   Disclosure of information concerning private entity restricted. No state agency may disclose that it is conducting a financial investigation, examination, or audit of a private entity while the financial investigation, examination, or audit is ongoing, except as provided by § 1-27-31.

      1-27-32.   Disclosure of confidential information as misdemeanor. Disclosure of information made confidential by §§ 1-27-28 to 1-27-32, inclusive, except as provided in § 1-27-31, is a Class 1 misdemeanor.
    Source: SL 1996, ch 12, § 5; SL 2004, ch 25, § 5

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-08-31 05:23

    As Roger and others suggest, Werdel’s problematic apologies have a logical explanation: she backtracked not because she had spoken falsehoods but because she feared further retribution. She blew the whistle, then when silent. That doesn’t make it much easier to argue in court for the credibility of the January 10 e-mails (the one we’ve seen and the preceding one that hasn’t become public yet), but it is plausible.

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