The attorney for one of the people charged with felonies related to the Mid Central Education Cooperative in Platte says the state is using his client as a scapegoat. The investigation involves crimes connected to Mid Central and a program called GEAR UP.
Authorities have charged three people in a complicated case involving multiple education organizations, grant money, and alleged theft. Stacy Phelps, an education and Native American advocate, is one of those charged. He was program manager for South Dakota’s GEAR UP initiative, which aims to help Indian students prepare for college.
Phelps faces charges of falsifying and backdating contracts to avoid an audit. Attorney Dana Hanna calls charges against Phelps "groundless."
"Mr. Phelps is being made a scapegoat by the Attorney General to distract attention from the fact that the State of South Dakota – specifically the Department of Education – was asleep while Mr. Westerhuis stole a million dollars that should have gone to Indian kids," Hanna says.
Court filings indicate that Mid Central Education Co-op business manager Scott Westerhuis funneled funds from one organization to another and submitted false invoices to access money for his personal expenses. Documents indicate his wife Nicole was also involved.
Officials say Scott Westerhuis shot Nicole and their four children in September before lighting the family home on fire and killing himself. Attorney General Marty Jackley says the violent deaths first brought his attention to the education initiatives in Platte.
"As we began that process on September 17th, we learned of a whole lot of different concerns," Jackley says. "And really based upon that we have not looked the other direction but instead dug into the facts, and we believe that we’ve found some pretty serious concerns, and we’ve done what’s called the initial charges."
Jackley emphasizes people charged are innocent until proven guilty. He says these filings are the beginning of an ongoing investigation that could implicate more people and lead to additional charges.
In addition to allegations against Stacy Phelps, former employee Stephanie Hubers faces charges of grand theft. The previous leader of Mid Central Education Cooperative Dan Guericke is accused of falsifying evidence and conspiracy.