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Sutton, Noem Trade Barbs on GEAR UP-Connected Campaign Donors

It’s nice to see that the Democratic and Republican candidates for Governor agree that South Dakotans should vote based on the corruption uncovered in the GEAR UP/Mid-Central scandal.

As the defense rested in the trial of GEAR UP honcho Stacy Phelps in Sioux Falls yesterday, both Billie Sutton and Kristi Noem issued press releases whacking each other for taking money from figures in the GEAR UP scandal. Sutton appears to have shot first, noting that Noem has taken contributions from two main GEAR UP figures who appear to fit the role of “unindicted co-conspirators,” Rick Melmer and Keith Moore. Melmer was the Secretary of Education of who steered millions of dollars in federal GEAR UP grant money to his tiny hometown educational coop in Platte, then stepped down from state government and collected a six-figure paycheck consulting that coop on how to use that federal money. Former Indian education director and Melmer’s pal Keith Moore used his connections to cash in on GEAR UP as well. His failure to properly document his lucrative work was one of the first signs Bob Mercer noticed of trouble at the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative.

Team Sutton finds that Melmer gave Noem’s campaign $750 this spring (see p. 5 of this supporting documentation filed May 21, 2018, by Noem with her pre-primary report). Moore contributed $300 a few days later (see attachment to this supplemental report submitted May 30). Sutton campaign manager Suzanne Jones Pranger explains why we should care:

The Congresswoman accepting campaign cash from former government officials connected to the GEAR Up scandal is just another example of why we know we cannot trust Kristi Noem to fix what is broken in state government. The Congresswoman’s questions of pay-to-play and links to insiders who are part of the problem with state government raise serious concerns about whether the people of South Dakota can trust Kristi Noem to look out for them and their tax dollars [link in original; Suzanne Jones Pranger, in press release from Sutton campaign, 2018.10.10].

Team Noem appears to fire back, not by pointing out that Melmer and Moore are good upstanding public servants guilty of no crime, but by digging up $11,000 in campaign contributions to Sutton from the attorneys for* local GEAR UP flunkies Stephanie Huber and Dan Guericke:

The GEAR UP case was a tragedy in Billie Sutton’s backyard, devastating a community in his own district. Despite that, GEAR UP criminal defense attorneys padded Sutton’s campaign account with $11,000 in contributions, including $7,000 in 2017 – the same year in which Sutton’s committee, the Government Operations and Audit Committee, was involved in the GEAR UP deliberations.

“Billie Sutton had a responsibility to uncover what happened with GEAR UP, but he chose to pad his political pocketbook instead,” said Justin Brasell, Kristi for Governor Campaign Manager. “How can anyone trust he will end corruption in Pierre when rather than fighting for accountability, Billie Sutton is funded by the criminal defense attorneys in one of the most tragic scandals in South Dakota history?”

  • $4,000 from lawyer Clint Sargent, who at the time was a criminal defense attorney for Stephanie Hubers in the GEAR UP case. (2017)
  • $3,000 from trial lawyer Clint Sargent (2018)
  • $3,000 from attorney Michael Butler, a defense attorney representing Dan Guericke (who just pleaded guilty) in the GEAR UP case (2017)
  • $1,000 from attorney Michael Butler (2018) [Kristi Noem campaign, press release, reprinted (of course!) on Dakota War College, 2018.10.10]

Now notice, you don’t get to vote on either of these press releases unless you admit that GEAR UP was a big bad instance of corruption made possible by our unaccountable one-party regime. If you accept that thesis, then you have to accept that South Dakota needs new management. All you’re left grappling with then is who is more likely to offer that change: Billie Sutton, whose contributors include the lawyers who’ve been defending (in the first case, quite successfully; in the latter, fighting down to a plea deal) the local patsies, or Kristi Noem, whose contributors include big establishment cronies who actually participated in the corruption…

…or Libertarian Kurt Evans, who probably hasn’t taken any money from anyone connected with GEAR UP… or, dare I speculate, anyone else?

Correction 12:13 CDT: Attorneys, not the Mid-Central functionaries themselves. My original line left out the attorneys for. I apologize for that omission.


  1. Anne Beal 2018-10-11 07:10

    Recap: Gear-Up was federal money for Indian kids. Federal money stolen from Native Americans. That’s the kind of thing that is usually handled by the US attorney. After the state figured out what was going on, Westerhuis self-destructed in Sept 2015.

    Randy Seiler was the acting US Attorney for the State of South Dakota starting in March of 2015, officially appointed in October of 2015, (prior to that he had been the first assistant US attorney, responsible for tribal relations and the prosecution of major crimes in Indian country since 2009.) He remained in that office until December 2017. He didn’t do anything about Gear-Up.
    I can see why the perps all hope Sutton and Seiler will be elected.

  2. Darin Larson 2018-10-11 08:11

    We should find out which campaign Guericke’s barber and butcher donated to. And what about Hubers’ hair stylist? Ignore the Republicans responsible for this corruption and pin it on a Democrat on a committee dominated by Republicans in a legislature dominated by Republicans that was supposed to provide oversight on an executive branch dominated by Republicans. That sounds about as honest as Kristi is.

  3. Stace Nelson 2018-10-11 08:26

    @Anne Beal Your hypocrisy knows no bounds! You maligned myself and other conservatives for attempting to drag the unholy GEAR Up CORRUPTION & Cover up scandal into the broad day light and do our job of checks and balances on this brazen SD STATE government corruption within the executive branch and now you have the dishonesty to blame Senator Sutton & Randy Seiler! Such ignorant partisan BS is bad enough when the Democrats do it, its worse when you and your husband ruin the GOP brand with your poisonous sycophancy. Senator Heinert owns his efforts to obstruct efforts to look into this corruption on the Tribal Relations Committee; HOWEVER, Senator Deb Peters, and the Daugaard administration own the accomplishment of obstructing legitimate legislative oversight and corrective actions into the $100 Million + GEAR UP corruption & cover up scandal. Democrat Senator Sutton & Representative Wismer supported Senator Tapio and my efforts on GOAC to properly look into this corruption. Senator Sutton is a Democrat and I differ with him on many issues; however, I have found him to be a good man, and sincere in his efforts to serve South Dakotans in this matter. Any claims by you or Congresswoman Noem that Senator Sutton joined the obstructionary efforts of Deb Peters & the Daugaard administration in preventing the GEAR Up Corruption & cover up from properly being addressed in the Government Operations & Audit Committee, is a damn lie.

  4. Jenny 2018-10-11 09:17

    Thank you Sen Nelson! If only more Republicans were like you and had the compassion to fight corruption in South Dakota. This shouldn’t be about which political party is better, it needs to about an honest, ethical open government.

    The Forty year GOP reign speaks for itself. They haven’t been able to stop corruption and scandals from happening. It’s getting worse each year.
    South Dakotans deserve better.
    Vote for an honest person that will fight corruption – Billie Sutton – prolife.

  5. 96Tears 2018-10-11 09:42

    Thank you, Stace! Yours is the right response to Noem’s response. My problem is with the original hit from Sutton. Two things are sketchy about it.

    1. The dollar amounts of the contributions ($750 from Melmer and $300 from Moore) are small bore amounts compared to contributions to either campaign from medium- and heavy-hitters. Considering that Melmer and Moore would be on the usual suspects list for any SDGOP campaign, the amounts are hardly an attempt at bribing for future favors.

    2. Suzanne Jones Pranger failed to do her homework about contributions to Sutton from GEAR UP scandal participants. Really, did Suzanne really think Noem’s staff wouldn’t check Sutton’s financial reports for ammunition to fire back? Five lashes with a wet noodle!

    If it weren’t for the backfire, this would have been a fine complement to the Sutton ads tying Noem to special interests, although it’s not compelling enough to generate a new ad to attack Noem. Now, the hit is useless and the issue runs too deep in the weeds of the GEAR UP mess with the election less than four weeks away. Noem’s response is also guilty of over-reaching, which marginalizes its impact badly.

    Sutton is winning this election by projecting an attractive vision of what we would like to see again in Pierre, and by accurately pointing out Noem’s failures as “she’s no good for us.” He should just stay on this horse.

    Stace’s statement above is much more effective as a testimonial about corruption in Pierre and who’s been on the side of cleaning up the mess.

  6. Ryan 2018-10-11 16:00

    Anne, the piece of garbage didn’t “self-destruct in Sept 2015.” He went on a murder spree. He killed his own kids. If I recall, the wife and daughter were reading a bedtime story in bed when they were shot with a shotgun.

    Ramble on all you want about money and who is “responsible” for uncovering thievery, but think about these innocent kids looking down the barrel of the 12 gauge that their dad was holding and have some decency.

  7. Patricia Shiery 2018-10-11 20:00

    Thank You Senator Nelson! Very well said!

  8. Spike 2018-10-12 07:31

    If you ever need anything, Sargent, Butler and Hannah definitely know how to burn the midnight oil.

    Pat Duffy fired one of those cigars up somewhere last night.

  9. Jason 2018-10-12 07:34

    Who actually broke the law in this case?

  10. leslie 2018-10-17 15:37

    Anne-FED MONEY. That was SD GOP excuse for this multiple murder/arson, AS WELL AS EB5. GOED cultivated $600,000,000 and you guys cried FED PROGRAM to escape accountability and liability.


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