Talk about a wussy effort at getting to the truth of a situation by an elected body, the South Dakota legislature has made a farce of its handling of the EB-5/Northern Beef fiasco. The U.S. Immigration Service's EB-5 visa program allows foreigners of considerable means to plunk down money in units of $500 thousand as investments in American enterprises, receiving in return legal residency status that can eventually be converted into citizenship. Until 2008, the State of South Dakota handled the process in this region through an entity called the International Business Institute (IBI) operating out of Northern State University in Aberdeen, apparently receiving some very hefty fees from these foreign investors as compensation for setting up the deals. In '08, the guy who ran the program from IBI created a private company named SDRC, Inc. That guy, Joop Bollen, then contracted, on behalf of the State of South Dakota, with his own company, SDRC, Inc., to turn over the handling of EB-5 applications and investments to himself, thereby collecting millions of dollars in fees that would otherwise have gone to the State of South Dakota. Yes. This really happened this way.
Since then a gigando floppola called Northern Beef Packers was developed with EB-5 investment money, well over $100 million of it, and a few million tossed in by the taxpayers of South Dakota as an economic development assist. Timelines and details of the whole sorry scheme are available at Cory Heidelberger's excellent and informative blog The Madville Times, where Heidelberger over the span of at least a year has been persistently and indefatigably piecing it together. The story is compelling, including as it does the suicide of a state official involved in the EB-5 program and a fair amount of foreign intrigue, considering that the burned investors were mainly Asians and that one of the financial entities involved is a Caribbean bank. But as compelling as the story is, it is incomplete because of the lackadaisical effort made by elected state officials, mainly Republicans in the SD legislature, to get at the details of this thing.
Finally, after months of prodding and the revelation, bit by bit, of elements of the story that can't be ignored, a hearing in Pierre on this matter is set to take place later this month. You'd think the most knowledgeable individual involved would be the star witness at this hearing, but no, Joop Bollen is getting treated timidly by the Republicans who are running this poor excuse for an investigation. The committee chairman, Larry Tidemann (R-7, Brookings) asked Bollen to appear but was turned down. Apparently, Tidemann doesn't consider the matter important enough to issue a subpoena, which he is empowered to do. This is ridiculous. I mean, asking the central figure in a multimillion dollar imbroglio to appear before a body investigating it? Not subpoenaing, but asking? And then settling for written responses to written questions as an acceptable alternative? Puh-leeze. It looks like cover-up city. What we have is a potentially toxic political shock coming out of all of this, considering that then Governor Mike Rounds, who was the man in charge while Slaughterhous EB-5 was in the works, is now running for the U.S. Senate. Rounds is supported by a limp plurality of 39% of voters, meaning that nearly two-thirds of us South Dakotans would rather not have him as our senator. Revelations that tie Rounds to this scandal could be fatal to his wobbly chances of winning that seat. As with many other voters, I want to know how Rounds was able to let Bollen get away with signing a multimillion dollar contract with himself on behalf (and at the expense) of the State of South Dakota. Bollen must know. Applying my "South Dakota common sense" (the thematic pride of the Rounds campaign), I doubt very seriously that Bollen's lawyer-ized written responses to that question and others will shed the kind of detail that a face-to-face visit with the knowledgeable and inquiring minds of a legislative committee will elicit. Real-time questions will lead to other real-time questions in that setting. There's no substitute for human interaction in a matter as important as this. The people in charge of this committee should start searching for the truth and quit covering their political keisters.