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 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...
- ...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;
- ...Bollen attempted to conceal a lawsuit against the state triggered by his own EB-5 activities in 2007 and 2008;
- ...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;
- ...Northern State University, the Board of Regents, the Attorney General, and the Governor's office knew Bollen had committed these infractions;
- ...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.
- ...Bollen made possible the half-million-plus golden parachute that Benda took from GOED to Northern Beef Packers.
- ...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.
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.