2018-01-11 / Front Page

Heinert Responds to Being Called “Pocahontas”

Lakota Lawmakers Explain No Vote On Gear Up Subpoenas

Shawn Bordeaux Shawn Bordeaux PINE RIDGE –It is not often that somebody tells three reservation-raised legislators that they are failing to represent the interests of Native American children and families living in South Dakota. That is exactly what happened when three Lakota state legislators chose to not back a resolution that would have asked the State-Tribal Relations Committee to issue subpoenas and open an investigation pertaining to the now notorious Gear Up Scandal.

Lawmakers across South Dakota have been scrambling to figure out how millions of dollars was embezzled from a Native American student achievement grant better known as Gear Up. This curiosity began when Scott Westerhuis killed his wife and two children, prior to setting his home ablaze and shooting himself shortly after he was notified that his business, the mid-central educational cooperative, had lost a lucrative multi-million dollar contract to facilitate a grant that paid for the Gear Up college prepatory program in September of 2015.

Troy Heinert Troy Heinert This program served hundreds of Native American students across the state and was designed to help these students succeed in college. Ironically, the South Dakota legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee considered the matter further and determined that the money Scott Westerhuis had stolen did not even come from Gear Up funds. It seems that Westerhuis had been embezzling money from 13 school districts in the state and not from Gear Up as originally noted by news outlets across the region.

“The heart of this matter is an embezzlement scandal involving Mid Central Coop’s former business manager, Scott Westerhuis. Mid Central Coop was created by a group of small school districts, and it is controlled by a board made up of representatives from those districts. Auditors have found that $1.4 million from Mid Central’s bank account is not accounted for,” wrote State Senator Deb Peters, chair of the Government Operations and Audit Committee, in a guest column posted to the South Dakota War College blog. “That missing $1.4 million was not GEAR UP money. GEAR UP is a federal program to help at-risk high school students go to college, and in South Dakota it is used to help Native Americans. Mid Central administered the program for the State of South Dakota. The federal funds went to the state Department of Education (SD DOE). Mid Central would submit receipts to SD DOE, and if the expenses were related to the federal program, Mid Central would be reimbursed. Although some GEAR UP dollars may not have been spent effectively, the audit did not find that any GEAR UP money was missing, and no money was stolen from the State,” she added.

Kevin Killer Kevin Killer While the state of South Dakota has charged three people including Stacy Phelps, a former Gear Up consultant and Oglala Lakota citizen with embezzlement related charges, the crux of the prosecution’s case has to do with Phelps backdating a contract for work. Not with an elaborate theft as indicated by the non-Native news and the South Dakota Attorney General’s office. Former Platte Mid-Central Educational Cooperative employees Stephanie Hubers and Dan Guericke are also facing charges in the matter.

The outright theft that took place under the noses of state officials has left a bad taste in the mouth of lawmakers in Pierre. Initially, much of the blame was directed at Phelps, but as more and more evidence had surfaced in the matter, it is beginning to look like safeguards within state government were lacking or failed to keep Westerhuis from pocketing millions in cash.

Last month, at a scheduled meeting of the State Tribal Relations Committee Senator Phil Jensen (R-33/Rapid City) offered a motion to summon principals in the Mid- Central/GEAR UP scandal to tell their perspective. All the republicans on the committee chose to back the resolution. However, not a single democrat on the committee backed the action.

The motion did not pass and those who voted against the measure have been ridiculed on social media for their position. This group included prominent Lakota lawmakers Rep. Shawn Bordeaux (D-26A/ Rosebud), Rep. Oren Lesmeister (D-28A/ Parade), and Senator Kevin Killer (D-27/Pine Ridge) and Chairman Troy Heinart (D- 28/Mission). While these men have a stellar record of supporting initiatives intended to improve the lives of people living in Lakota Country, they are now being accused of failing their duties to represent the people.

In an interview with Lakota Country Times, Heinert says that the reason why he did not support the resolution to subpoena Gear Up related witnesses was the State Tribal Relations Committee is not equipped, nor does it lack the statutory authority to conduct an inquiry in to Gear Up. All of the democrats on the committee chose to back Heiner’s assertion.

The position taken by the democrats was not accepted while by political pundits across the state including Cory Heidelberger of the Dakota Free Press.

“From a purely political perspective, Democrats have everything to gain and nothing to lose from backing these subpoenas. But yesterday, again, four Democrats on the committee dedicated to state-tribal issues said nope, we have better things to do than try digging further into this instance of corruption in a crown jewel in state-tribal education efforts that, as federal investigators have established, resulted in Native schools losing money,” wrote Heidelberger.

Heinert stated to LCT that the committee simply lacks the jurisdiction to issue subpoenas.

“We are a statutory committee. We are created by statute. It defines what our role is and what we can do, we have no subpoena powers, the GOAC, they do have that authority, so I ruled that motion out of order,” said Heinert. “All that would have happened is they would have challenged in court, they would have called me up and said there was no authority for us to do that.”

Kevin Killer stated the same reasoning.

“Had we done it, it would have been challenged to by the courts and any information would not be admissible in court,” said Killer. “This committee was not created to do investigations like this. What has happened is that we have been taken away from issues that we can make a difference on like meth, poverty, and other issues impacting people living on reservations.”

The position taken by the democrats was affirmed by the Attorney General Marty Jackley who said the tribal-relations committee was not granted the ability to issue subpoenas. He would add that there are other committees, including GOAC, that can issue subpoenas.

Despite the fact that a no vote on the matter was the correct legal position, the dems on the committee were attacked on social media for refusing to go along with the republican sponsored motion. Republicans were being credited for “being the only ones” to look out for the needs of Lakota children.

In the days leading up to the Christmas break, Heinert was the subject of a tone-deaf social media post from republican gubernatorial candidate Loral Hubbel, who implied that conflicts of interest were the reasons why Heinert blocked the subpoenas.

“Sen Troy Heinert’s (SD’s Pocahontas- the man is a Dutchman pretending to be an Indian) mother is on this map twice yet he will not recuse himself (as required by law when he votes if the Senate committee should subpoena these people to see where our $62 Million has gone, obviously some when (sic) to his mother… Get Me in the Governor’s Office to Stop this crud,” read the post. Hubbel’s post was inreferan to a map created by students that showed who all was connected to the Gear Up scandal. Heinert’s mother worked as an educational consultant, but her connection to the matter was minor and inconsequential to the matter at hand.

Hubbel was lambasted by Native Americans who took offense to the tone and implication of Hubbel’s post. Pat Powers of the South Dakota War College called on Hubbel to exit the race. Hubbel would continue in the post saying that she is not a racist and that he choice of Bruce Whalen, an Oglala Lakota citizen, as a running mate was further evidence.

Hubbel did not seem to understand the offensive nature of her Pocahontas comment. President Donald Trump angered much of Indian Country when he referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas in the past. Trump says that she has attempted to use a claim of Native ancestry to gain political favor. Hubbel’s use of the term was a low-blow and many Native Americans take offense to non-Native people attempting to decide who warrants tribal-citizenship.

Hubbel stood by her comments in statement provided to LCT.

“If I called someone “King Tut” I would be doing so because I thought they held a much higher opinion of themselves then what others do. I meant similar with Sen. Heinert. I tried to reduce Troy Heinert a bit by calling him a famous Indian. Others have said similar when we hear the now infamous quote, “and you, sir, are no Ronald Reagan!” I have been told I erred and should have called him, Faux-cahontas because he pretending to be a caliber of a person that he is not. Troy is nothing like the heroine Pocahontas,” said Hubbel.

First, he has a much diluted blood line to the American Indians. Second of all he threw the Indian kids under the bus by refusing to call the perpetrators of the Gear Up Scandal in for questioning. Now we may never find out why the Indian teens did NOT get the leg-up they needed to succeed in post High School Education. Think of all the missed opportunity for an Indian child because someone took money for their own selfish reason that was meant for disadvantaged Indian teens. This was done unethically – not illegally - because SD won’t make a law calling this kind of corruption illegal. This looks especially egregious when we see that Troy Heinert’s MOTHER is a recipient of GEAR UP benefits”, she added

“My mother taught English and Business Writing at USD for several years, and I recall her telling us about her Indian students which most of whom just delighted her…that experience of delighting a college professor will NOT happen to Indian kids now because of SD’s mishandling of GEAR UP and other funds meant to help the disadvantaged. Troy Heinert is a disgrace to the Indian people. He could have used his position to bring justice. Instead he just piped out talking points from Marty Jackley,” continued Hubbel.

Heinert condemned the comments.

“What is offensive are the efforts to discredit reservation based lawmakers. She has no understanding of our culture, our language, or how we pray. I think I do a pretty good job of representing the interests of our people and our communities. There is no place for comments like this,” he added.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

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