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Candidates For Gov, Senate Question EB-5

Kealey Bultena

Political hopefuls in two major races are questioning fellow candidates about their involvement with the EB-5 program. Dakota Fest in Mitchell is host to both a gubernatorial debate and a US Senate candidate forum. The Wednesday debates took questions submitted by people in the audience. Both debates included discussions about uncertainties surrounding a foreign investment program. 

The federal EB-5 program offers visas to foreign investors who put $500,000 into American business ventures. Suspicion surrounds the program’s legitimacy in South Dakota after the death of a former cabinet secretary, an investigation that revealed embezzlement, and failed business efforts that cost investors.

Candidates for South Dakota governor receive a question about the EB-5 program: Do people know everything they should? Incumbent Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard was lieutenant governor when Richard Benda reportedly used the program to embezzle $550,000. Daugaard says he’s willing to meet with the legislative committee exploring what happened with EB-5.

"I’m not hiding anything. I’m trying to be as transparent as I can, answer every question that I can. I wasn’t there. It’s not like there’s a murder conducted in Mitchell and you interview a witness in Parkston. I wasn’t there, so I’m offering what information I can," Daugaard says. "I’m trying to be as transparent as I can. We’re publishing everything on the internet that anybody wants to look at; it’s right there, and we’ve implemented every recommendation that the auditors have recommended to us in terms of improving our internal procedures so that this can’t happen again."

Daugaard references three audits from three separate organizations. Democratic challenger State Representative Susan Wismer says those audits are important, but they don’t address all of the questions surrounding EB-5’s application in South Dakota.

"What is most important to me is that he dictated the parameters. The legislature, at least not the minority party, to my knowledge, had absolutely zero input into the content of those audits. Those audits very carefully avoided the exact questions that we are asking today," Wismer says. 

Wismer is on the Government Operations and Audit Committee. Lawmakers on GOAC are tasked with investigating issues surrounding the governor’s office of economic development. Independent gubernatorial candidate Mike Myers says he applauds Wismer’s work trying to get the committee to ask questions of key players. Myers says he wants a special prosecutor to investigate, because he says not all experts agree with the official record that former Secretary of Tourism and State Development Richard Benda committed suicide.

One of the candidates running for South Dakota’s open US Senate seat was governor at the time of Benda’s reported embezzlement. An audience question aimed at Senate hopefuls asks whether they support the federal EB-5 program. Independent candidate and former US Senator Larry Pressler says he doesn’t favor EB-5, and he’s aware of the tension surrounding the South Dakota inquiry.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
Democrat Rick Weiland, Independent Gordon Howie, moderator Jerry Oster, Republican Mike Rounds, Independent Larry Pressler / August 20, 2014

"I think it should be investigated much more thoroughly. I’m afraid that those investigations won’t come until next year. And in the interest of you, in the interest of South Dakota citizens, I believe that my friend, Governor Rounds, should write what’s called a memorandum of fact – everything about his relationship with this fellow, Mr. Benda, from the time he hired him," Pressler says. "He worked with him on a daily basis, obviously. He was his chief cabinet secretary – but like a 30 or 40 point questionnaire to himself and for the people of South Dakota."

After Pressler’s remarks, two more Senate candidates press former Governor Mike Rounds to disclose more information.

"I have to tell you, when we couldn’t, meaning Susan Wismer, couldn’t get a second to bring Joop Bollen to the table to answer some questions, I just figure they just crossed over the line here. This does not feel right to me," Democrat Rick Weiland says. "And I believe the people of South Dakota are really are entitled to a very, and I like Senator Pressler’s idea, a real explanation of what happened here."

"I would like to ask the former governor to be willing to go before that panel and testify under oath. I’d like to see a release of all the emails between Joop Bollen and then-Governor and Richard Benda and the governor. I’d like to see phone records. I’ll like to see appointment calendars so we see who did what when and who knew what when," Independent candidate Gordon Howie says. 

Former Governor Mike Rounds speaks last. He answers the original EB-5 question directly. He says he supports the federal investor visa program because it brings business and jobs to South Dakota in exchange for offering citizens of other counties an option to come to the United States. After the debate, Rounds talked to SDPB reporter Kealey Bultena.

BULTENA: In response to, then, that call to put some facts out there, give us a fact sheet about your relationship or go in front of GOAC. Are you going to do that?
ROUNDS: We’ve already offered that we will participate in any state-requested investigation, and we’ve been doing that. Along with that, I’ve done my best to answer any questions from the press on this issue as best we can from day one. In most cases I ask, ‘Do you have any more questions?’ and the response is, ‘No, I don’t.’

Some lawmakers want more answers, though, as do candidates for statewide offices. From audience submissions at the Dakota Fest debates, it appears South Dakota citizens have questions, too.

Kealey Bultena grew up in South Dakota, where her grandparents took advantage of the state’s agriculture at nap time, tricking her into car rides to “go see cows.” Rarely did she stay awake long enough to see the livestock, but now she writes stories about the animals – and the legislature and education and much more. Kealey worked in television for four years while attending the University of South Dakota. She started interning with South Dakota Public Broadcasting in September 2010 and accepted a position with television in 2011. Now Kealey is the radio news producer stationed in Sioux Falls. As a multi-media journalist, Kealey prides herself on the diversity of the stories she tells and the impact her work has on people across the state. Kealey is always searching for new ideas. Let her know of a great story! Find her on Facebook and twitter (@KealeySDPB).
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