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2014 Man of the Year in South Dakota Politics: Richard Benda

Last updated on 2016.09.05

In my Top 30 Stories of 2014 post this morning, I noted that I wrote 172 blog posts about EB-5 this year. Here comes #173.

I would never have devoted 11% of my 2014 blog output to the EB-5 visa investment program if hadn't been for one man, a man who dictated much of this blog's focus without lifting a finger or uttering a word... because that man was dead.

Richard Benda in happier times, the Philippines, September 2012.
Richard Benda in happier times, the Philippines, September 2012.

Richard Benda died of a gunshot wound on October 20, 2013. His unexpected and suspicious death prompted Governor Dennis Daugaard to reveal the existence last year of a federal investigation into activities that took place in the Governor's Office of Economic Development while Benda headed that office. That revelation drove media attention throughout 2014. We learned that Benda had diverted more than half a million dollars from state assistance to one EB-5 project, Northern Beef Packers, into his own pocket. But we also learned, among other things, that...

  1. ...the head of South Dakota's EB-5 program, Joop Bollen, signed a contract with himself in 2008 to assign his duties as a state employee to his own private company, where he could turn his work for the state into millions of dollars in fees;
  2. ...Bollen attempted to conceal a lawsuit against the state triggered by his own EB-5 activities in 2007 and 2008;
  3. ...Bollen and his associate James Park, neither of whom is licensed to practice law in or on behalf of the state of South Dakota, unsuccessfully litigated that lawsuit themselves in 2008;
  4. ...Northern State University, the Board of Regents, the Attorney General, and the Governor's office knew Bollen had committed these infractions;
  5. ...Governor Mike Rounds ignored all of these known violations and at the end of 2009 granted Bollen a lucrative no-bid contract worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to completely privatize the state's EB-5 program.
  6. ...Bollen made possible the half-million-plus golden parachute that Benda took from GOED to Northern Beef Packers.
  7. ...Benda and Bollen tried to arrange EB-5 investment money for the Hyperion refinery (a doomed project) and the Keystone XL pipeline (which already has all the funding necessary and for which EB-5 money would have represented no added value for the pipeline or South Dakota other than the millions that Bollen and Benda would have skimmed in EB-5 fees).

EB-5 czar Joop Bollen committed several violations of state law and policy. Senate candidate and former governor Mike Rounds knew about those violations and continued to reward and defend Bollen.

But now, the very official word, from the Governor, the former Governor now Senator-Elect, the Attorney General, and the Government Operations and Audit Committee of the South Dakota Legislature, is that no one but Richard Benda did anything wrong in South Dakota's EB-5 program.

The research I've done, the conversations I've had, and the extraordinary efforts Mike Rounds and Marty Jackley and Larry Tidemann have undertaken to blame Richard Benda tell me that "Benda did it" is not the whole story, and maybe not even a true story.

Richard Benda could have told us many things to dispel that story. He could have told us what Joop Bollen and James Park were doing to Northern Beef Packers' finances in 2009. Richard Benda could have told us how Northern Beef made $95 million in EB-5 investment disappear into bankruptcy. He could have shared with us—with GOAC, with the FBI—his conversations with Bollen, Park, and Rounds during his tenure as GOED secretary. He could have told us what events carried him from the seemingly happy days of jet-setting to Southeast Asia and the Philippines through 2012 down to being pushed out of Northern Beef Packers and off the EB-5 gravy train in early 2013, bouncing from a consulting job in Sioux Falls to Russ Olson's old job at Heartland in Madison, and ultimately alone (we assume) to a shelterbelt near Lake Andes, where (we are told) he took his own life with a shotgun blast to his gut.

Maybe Benda saw the fix was in. Maybe he didn't think he could beat the evidence the state had against him, real or not. Maybe he saw himself out of the inner circle and all of the people who could have helped him beholden to power and money. Maybe he foresaw perfectly before that fatal shot that his former friends in the SDGOP would put EB-5 in one neat box and bury it with him. Maybe his death said, "Cory, forget EB-5. You can't beat these guys."

I spent this year trying to piece together the story Benda wouldn't tell, the story that would shift some of the blame piled on his defenseless corpse onto the shoulders of those still living and rolling in their ill-gotten EB-5 gains.

In practical terms, I failed. The GOP won its immediate objective: blow smoke on EB-5, win the election, keep GOP hands on all the levels of power we can keep a lid on the story. No one—not Bob Mercer, not Denise Ross, not Kathy Tyler and Patrick Duffy and the Democratic Party—managed to part that smoke with a narrative clear enough to explain to South Dakota voters that EB-5 was built on an absurd and illegal conflict of interest and that our next Senator Mike Rounds knew that and was fine with that.

And Joop Bollen remains a free man, unindicted by a curiously incurious Attorney General.

EB-5 killed Richard Benda. EB-5 did not kill the South Dakota Republican Party that hung Benda out to dry. But EB-5 still epitomizes the corruption and cover-ups of South Dakota's one-party rule. EB-5 remains a story that needs to be told. Richard Benda's unusual and suspicious death rightly riveted my attention and many others' on the EB-5 story in 2014. In that regard, Richard Benda is thus, sadly, the man of the year in South Dakota politics.


  1. larry kurtz 2014.12.31

    You rock, CAH.

  2. Jane 2014.12.31

    Cory, well said. To those still in doubt, ignoring the truths does not make reality disappear.

  3. Richard Schriever 2014.12.31

    All thumbs up.

  4. grudznick 2014.12.31

    What would Benda think?

  5. JeniW 2014.12.31

    Cory, I would not use the term "fail." You did not fail. Failure is not attempting to do anything, or not trying.

    You, and others, were not as successful as was hoped, but you did succeed in making people more aware of the situation and the people involved.

  6. Tim 2014.12.31

    Cory, you didn't fail, the truth will come out someday. Truth has a funny way of doing that.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.12.31

    Grudz, that's a fascinating question. I'd love to know. I'd love to find the diary or letter to a loved one or something that would tell us what Benda would think, or what he was thinking.

    Friends, thank you for your support. I appreciate the revision on "fail"—perhaps I am slipping and falling for the Republican narrative, which would have us believe the EB-5 discussion failed and is over and done. Not the case—the discussion will continue, and history will render a verdict. Sometimes I just wish history would get its rear in gear.

  8. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.12.31

    Good choice Cory, and very good work on the EB5/Rounds scandal.

    In the photo is Benda with one of his Filipino hookers? I wonder how much potential SD tax money went to the junkets of the EB5 crooks?

  9. grudznick 2014.12.31

    Ms. Geelsdottir, you should know better than to cast aspersions on some young lady you don't know just because she's young and pretty and kissing what might just be her father figure, a man she knows as Uncle Rich, or perhaps Pappy, for simply buying her a new dress or maybe feeding her elderly parents who can't afford to feed themselves. You know nothing about the lady. But perhaps you are right.

  10. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.12.31

    Grudz, I read your comment and snorted. So unladylike of me, but I couldn't help it! You are . . . You're . . . You . . .

    I guess you just left me speechless.

  11. Jane 2014.12.31

    Different strokes for different people. Whatever toots your horn. BTW, my Filipino friends will say that this is not your traditional cultural expression of gratitude.
    It's just disturbing.

  12. grudznick 2014.12.31

    Look at his eyes. Still a young man with a full mane of hair, Mr. Benda seems to be smirking to the camera saying "Yes, Ms. Geelsdottir, yes indeed."

  13. Bill Dithmer 2014.12.31

    Good thread Cory. What is a Tickle Bar?

    The Blindman

  14. grudznick 2014.12.31

    It's like the Belle Star, Mr. Dithmer.

  15. Jenny 2014.12.31

    But I thought democrats were the only ones that fooled around!

  16. Bill Dithmer 2015.01.01

    Kiddy porn?

    The Blindman

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.01

    Tickles—good find, Jane! However, Deb, I do not have definitive evidence that the young woman in the photo is a hooker. I have seen a series of other photos of Benda with this same young woman that suggest their relationship extended over weeks and that he spent time with her family.

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.01

    If Jane has accurately identified the location of the above photo, Tickles Bar on Makati Avenue is 2.2 kilometers northeast of the Café Havana, a go-go bar which is among the places where Benda entertained potential EB-5 investors in 2010.

  19. 96Tears 2015.01.01

    Excellent summary, Cory! You've provided the evidence here for a classic RICO case.

    The game of "running down the clock" was what we who believe in truthfulness and justice lost in 2014. But the pursuit of truth and justice is not a game and it runs a very different course from a mere election.

    The scribes at Argus Sanford get these confused. That's why they're not serving their readers by doing their job to dig for the truth. They are content with having a racketeer representing our state in the U.S. Senate.

  20. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.01

    What's the statute of limitations on cases like this, 96?

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.01

    Jenny, I wouldn't say "fooling around." This photo was in 2012. Benda had been divorced since 2006. Benda was a free man throughout his GOED/EB-5 period.

  22. 96Tears 2015.01.01

    Class A, Class B, or Class C felonies: no limit on state law books. Good reason to keep electing Republicans, right?

  23. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.01

    Uh oh, 96: Findlaw tells me that fraud and contract issues have six-year time limits. Are there felony statutes to which you refer that trump those limitations?

  24. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.01

    South Dakota Codified Law Chapter 15-2 provides the statutes relevant to the numbers provided by Findlaw.

  25. Moses 2015.01.01

    C.H. great job on the radio yesterday on powers, also Tidemann is just a follower like he would buck the party.

  26. Moses 2015.01.01

    Would P.P. ever agree to a debate on the issues on S.D. doubt if he could clearly debate you on the issues.

  27. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.01

    Thanks, Moses! I would enjoy participating in a series of public debates to entertain and enlighten voters around South Dakota. I doubt Powers would consent to participate, and I don't think he'd be nearly as fun as some other possibilities. If you want good will, intellect, spirited clash, and entertainment value, better opponents would be Mark Vargo, Stan Adelstein, Stace Nelson, and Gordon Howie. Of course, to make a really good public debate, I would want a clearly stated resolution, so everyone would know exactly what we are debating and be able to set clearer standards to determine who "wins."

  28. larry kurtz 2015.01.01

    A debate between Cory and Jon Lauck would be worth the price of admission.

  29. Roger Cornelius 2015.01.01

    Given that Rounds, Daugaard, and Jackley insistence that EB-5 is a federal program, would federal statutes of limitations apply?

  30. Vickie 2015.01.01

    You've done an excellent job Cory. Hopefully,the truth will come out and those responsible are held accountable for their actions...with an extra kick in the rear for blaming everything on a deceased person.

  31. Wayne Pauli 2015.01.01

    I agree with Vickie. Hopefully the truth will come out, and those that have been lying about it will have their day. There must be many homes without mirrors, as I cannot believe you could look at yourself if you were involved. On the other hand, I am apparently missing something in my DNA makeup as I have a conscience.

    "I am not a crook.". November 17, 1973 by Richard M. Nixon
    The truth set him free...along with a pardon from Ford.

  32. John Hess 2015.01.01

    Not long back Netflix showed footage of Nixon and his cohorts. They thought they were doing good work! Something happens when people insulate themselves around others that think like they do, have the same goals, etc. They lose perspective and get a siege mentality. Gets tribal. It's a real downfall Congress doesn't mix even socially anymore.

  33. John Hess 2015.01.01

    The director of either Animal House or Revenge the of Nerds separated his actors from the beginning in two groups that couldn't interact except on screen. They developed real animosity towards each other as he hoped so that chemistry would appear on screen.

    There's too much us versus them.

  34. Catherine Ratliff 2015.01.02

    In a Dec 31 wrap-up of 2014 news, SD television disposed of the EB-5 scandal: it was all about Richard Benda, who got "thousands" of dollars out of the program. Good grief, where are the journalists.

  35. Mike Armstrong 2015.01.02

    How many suicides have occurred where the despondent individual used a shotgun to the belly? This seems like a unique and historic event.

  36. Wayne Pauli 2015.01.02

    I am just spit balling here, but if I was a guy with Young women hanging on me at a tickle bar...I am not commiting suicide. Just not on my radar.

  37. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    Mike, suicide by long gun to the abdomen is rare but not unprecedented. In his 2002 book on gunshot wounds (careful: gruesome pix), forensic pathologist Vincent DiMaio finds 2% of handgun suicides [p. 358] and 3% of rifle/shotgun suicides [p. 363] shooting for the abdomen. DiMaio says the following about handgun wounds, which likely applies to his approach to long-gun wounds: "Thus, the fact that a wound is in an unusual location does not necessarily mean that it cannot be self-inflicted, though it is wise to always start with the presumption that such a case is a homocide" [p. 360].

  38. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    Two doctors (one from Slovakia, one from Czech Republic) write that "shotgun wounds of the trunk appear externally innocuous, even inconspicuous - hence the diameter of the entrance hole is roughly equal to the caliber of the used bore" [Janík, M., Hejna, P., Comments on self-inflicted fatal shotgun wound from a homemade, Legal Medicine (2014), doi:; manuscript available here.]

  39. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    Larry, Lauck is a debate ninja.

  40. larry kurtz 2015.01.02

    and you are chopped liver?

  41. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    Roger, on that federal issue: I would assume federal statutes of limitations would apply to violations of federal law. The violations I've focused on—Bollen's contract with himself, his self-litigation of the Darley lawsuit, his failure to bring the case to the attention of the state risk management office (headed by Mike Rounds's brother Dennis), his pocketing of those millions in dollars of fees on the basis of his illegitimate contract—are all state-level violations, all within the purview of AG Marty Jackley.

  42. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    Larry, I'm saying it would be a heck of a debate, not one that I would approach lightly.

  43. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    John Hess, good point about point about the hazards of insulating ourselves. That's why I'd like to get more conservatives over here commenting and giving me a hard time. That's also why I'd enjoy doing some Chautauqua-style debates around the state with folks like Lauck, Nelson, and Howie.

  44. mike from iowa 2015.01.02

    John Hess-

    New House Majority Whip Steve Scalise @ Animal House

  45. mike from iowa 2015.01.02

    Didn't the original report claim Benda had a bullet wound? Shotguns don't shoot bullets unless it is a deer slug and Benda was reported to be pheasant hunting,although an early report said something to the effect he wasn't a pheasant hunter.

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