South Dakota Goes To Hell

If any state should recognize an emergency, it’s South Dakota. The Mt. Rushmore state has experienced more than its share of disasters, from the “Schoolhouse Blizzard” of 1888 that killed 235 people to the Ice Storm of 2013, from the Black Hills Flood of 1972 that killed 238 to the killer tornado that hit Spencer in 1998 and reduced the town’s population by more than half. South Dakota’s most recent “emergency” is different from these.

South Dakota, like every state, has dealt with a number of scandals. One of the ugliest involved the operator of a non-profit corporation who allegedly embezzled at least a million dollars intended to help Native American students. The term “allegedly” is necessary because the suspect, Scott Westerhuis, never went to trial. As the posse closed in, he shot and killed his wife and children and burned down their house before killing himself. Around the same time Richard Benda, an aide to a former South Dakota governor found himself under investigation for alleged improprieties involving a visa program. Like Westerhuis, Benda never went to trial. He also killed himself as the posse closed in. While the Benda investigation implicated former Governor Mike Rounds and another state official, a legislative investigation decided to let them off the hook and blame the dead guy. These scandals, as well as South Dakota’s notorious laissez-faire attitude toward lobbyists, earned the state an “F” from The Center for Public Integrity.

The people of South Dakota finally had enough. In 2016, they passed Measure 22, a grass-roots initiative formally known as the “South Dakota Government Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act,” a compelling dose of ethical disinfectant.

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