I was wrong. Stephanie Hubers, the only person facing prison time for charges related to the GEAR UP scandal, is not guilty of stealing anything, not from her former employer, the scandal-leveled Mid-Central Educational Cooperative; not from the GEAR UP program; not from the taxpayers. So sayeth a Sioux Falls jury; so must say we all.
Upsetting my prediction, the jury appears to have bought the defense’s portrayal of Hubers as a victim of her thieving, bullying boss, Scott Westerhuis:
“We all know now that Scott Westerhuis was the worst kind of monster. He was a control freak who marketed himself as a savior — but he was a destroyer,” [defense attorney Clint] Sargent said in his closing argument. “He didn’t have accomplices. He just had victims, especially those closest to him” [James Nord, “Jury Clears South Dakota Woman Accused in Embezzlement Case,” AP via Kansas City Star, 2018.06.29].
The defense may not have needed the bully argument. The defense may have only needed one word from Attorney General Marty Jackley in his closing argument:
Still, Jackley believes Hubers case is different. “She’s taking this money for doing nothing,” said Jackley. Use your common sense. It’s probably stolen money” [Allison Royal, “Jury Finds Stephanie Hubers Not Guilty in GEAR UP Case,” KDLT, 2018.06.29].
If taking money for doing nothing were a crime, Marty Jackley could prosecute Kristi Noem for cashing eight years of Congressional paychecks.
But… probably? Marty Jackley brings Class 4 felony charges of grand theft, each worth ten years in the pen, against a small-town clerk in an office where millions of dollars went missing, a business office subordinate who for some reason got to travel to a big national GEAR UP convention, for some reason was walking around at the crime scene of her boss’s murder-suicide and looking through evidence, and for some reason exercised power of attorney over Scott Westerhuis’s mother and handled his estate after his death, and then he looks a jury in the eye and says, “It’s probably stolen money”?
I don’t see probably in any of the quotes from Clint Sargent’s closing argument. I don’t think we’ll find probably in any definitions of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard juries are supposed to reach in a criminal conviction.
Good grief! Did Marty Jackley want to lose this case?
Maybe. In a way, in losing to Stephanie Hubers, the state may not really have lost. By blowing the case, Jackley got the jury to bow to the state’s bigger argument, that Scott Westerhuis was the root, trunk, and branch of all evil at Mid-Central and that no one else, certainly no state employee or functionary or friend, bears any guilt for the GEAR UP scandal.
The Hubers acquittal is certainly good news for the remaining GEAR UP defendants, former Mid-Central exec Dan Guericke and GEAR UP director Stacy Phelps. Phelps’s attorney Dana Hanna has contended that Westerhuis was the thief and that Jackley is just “looking for scapegoats to take attention from the fact that the state was sleeping while Westerhuis stole $1 million from the taxpayers.”
With Jackley now a duck lamed by his primary loss to Kristi Noem, his loss on all three GEAR UP prosecutions could be the most politically convenient outcome for the Republican establishment: Let juries establish that there was no criminal conspiracy beyond Scott Westerhuis’s devious machinations, Jackley takes a mild bruising for once again not catching a bad guy, but the state contains the scandal again by putting all the blame on the dead guy and moves on without the stain of proven widespread rot.
Hubers is not guilty. The jury said so. That jury verdict may look like an embarrassment to the state, but it could be exactly the verdict the state wanted.