Mike Rounds, giving out loans like candy
In a huge admission, former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, the GOP nominee in this year's Senate race, acknowledged Tuesday that he did in fact know that a top former cabinet official, Richard Benda, was going to work for investors running a meatpacking concern called Northern Beef, right around the same time that Rounds signed off on a special $600,000 state loan package to the company that Benda had urged. That money went directly into Benda's pockets, as he paid himself $225,000 a year to oversee the now-failed plant.
Just before Rounds left office at the end of 2010, Benda, then the state's secretary of tourism, pressed for the extra loans for Northern Beef, and Rounds approved the funding. A state audit later found that Benda had a serious conflict of interest in requesting the loans—duh—but until now, we didn't know whether Rounds himself was aware of this glaring conflict. It turns out that he most certainly did:
At the time, though, Rounds didn't ask Benda for more details.
"I said 'Good, I'm glad to hear that he's going to be actively involved in the beef plant,'" Rounds said in a live interview on the Argus Leader's "100 Eyes" online show.
Rounds claimed he couldn't remember whether he learned of Benda's future employment plans before or after the Northern Beef loans went through, but even if he only found out about them after, he surely could have raised an alarm while he still had time. Instead, he went blithely silent.
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There's much more to this scandal, though. Head below the fold to learn more.
As for Northern Beef, it's at the center of the EB-5 visa scandal, which is both complex yet very simple. In short, EB-5 allows wealthy foreign investors to jump the line for green cards by putting at least $500,000 into a rural business. During the financial downturn, South Dakota decided it wanted in on the action, and a state official named Joop Bollen ramped up efforts to pull in more investors. He created a private company called SDRC that ultimately brought in $100 million to fund Northern Beef—and allowed him to collect fees off the top.
Benda, who nominally oversaw the state's EB-5 program in his role as tourism secretary, also wanted a piece of the pie, which is why he scored a job with SDRC (which was running Northern Beef) and secured that loan from Rounds to pay his own salary. Northern Beef was a mismanaged debacle, though: It went out of business after less than a year, unable to service its debt and fund operations.
The implosion cost taxpayers at least $4.4 million, and state investigators began taking a close look at the entire mess. But as they began to close in on Benda last fall and an indictment loomed, Benda took his own life.
The EB-5 scandal has badly hurt Rounds and is a key reason South Dakota's Senate race is up for grabs. His new admission that he went along with Benda's scheme to loot state coffers despite being aware of Benda's massive conflict of interest will only hurt him more.
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But with less than two weeks to go, Democrat Rick Weiland still needs plenty of help. EB-5 is not enough: South Dakota is still a tough state for any Democrat to carry, and Weiland needs boots on the ground to get the vote out, so do your part to help a true progressive win this critical Senate seat.
5:34 PM PT: Rounds now denies authorizing the $600,000 loan. However, he did approve an earlier $1 million loan for Northern Beef.