AG: Couple who died stole grant money; 3 others charged

AP News
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Posted: Mar 16, 2016 8:01 PM

PLATTE, S.D. (AP) — A South Dakota couple who died in a murder-suicide last year stole hundreds of thousands of dollars intended to be used to help improve Native Americans' college readiness, among other things, state Attorney General Marty Jackley said Wednesday.

Investigators believe the total amount that Scott and Nicole Westerhuis stole exceeded $1 million, based on a review of financial records. Three other people associated with Mid-Central Educational Cooperative and the GEAR UP college-readiness grant program are also facing felony charges stemming from the investigation launched after Scott Westerhuis shot his wife and their four children before setting fire to their house near Platte and killing himself.

The deaths occurred just hours after the state informed Mid-Central that it was losing a $4.3 million federal contract for GEAR UP because of financial problems and accounting failures. The two initially tried to hide the alleged illegal activity that started as early as 2010, but became more brazen near the time of the September 2015 fire, according to a court affidavit.

They spent at least part of the money on home improvement projects, Jackley said at a news conference in Platte six months after the deaths.

Scott Westerhuis served as Mid-Central's business manager and Nicole Westerhuis was the assistant business manager. In addition to working at the cooperative, the two had ties to nonprofit organizations that received GEAR UP funding, including the American Indian Institute for Innovation.

According to court documents, the couple took money from Mid-Central's bank account without authorization to fund the American Indian Institute for Innovation's payroll. At the end of November 2015, the institute owed Mid-Central as much as $826,000 for payroll, Stephanie Hubers, a former business employee at Mid-Central, told a state investigator.

Scott and Nicole Westerhuis stole money from the Institute, including writing checks to themselves from its bank account for their own use, according a court affidavit.

Hubers faces felony charges related to theft or receiving stolen property.

Dan Guericke, Mid-Central's director, has been charged with six felony counts for falsifying evidence and conspiring to offer forged or fraudulent evidence. Stacy Phelps, who previously served as chief executive of the American Indian Institute for Innovation, is charged with four felony counts for those alleged crimes.

In a statement released through an attorney, the Institute's board said they have cooperated with investigators.

Scott Westerhuis and "other employees" made a significant number of fraudulent purchases and misappropriated funds from the Institute's bank accounts, according to the statement. It says board members were provided with "falsified and/or incomplete" information about the group's operations for years.

Guericke and Phelps are accused of backdating two contracts between Mid-Central and the American Indian Institute for Innovation in August 2015 before they were made available to the state Department of Legislative Audit. Investigators say in the court records they believe the contract changes were an attempt to avoid a potential audit of the Institute.

Guericke is also accused of conspiring with Scott and Nicole Westerhuis to backdate contracts with other individuals.

Hubers is accused of receiving money from the American Indian Institute for Innovation totaling more than $50,000 that she wasn't entitled to or that she knew had been stolen.

The three people charged voluntarily turned themselves in on arrest warrants and have been released on bond conditions, Jackley's office said.

Hubers' attorney declined to comment on her behalf or make her available for an interview, and court records didn't list lawyers for Guericke and Phelps. Mid-Central's lawyer, Scott Swier, said he isn't authorized to provide attorney information for Guericke. Mid-Central governing board Chairwoman Pamela Haukaas said Guericke has been placed on administrative leave.

Swier has previously said the cooperative was aware of Scott Westerhuis' ties to the nonprofits but wasn't aware of the extent of the affiliation.

"I know our family still misses the children very much," Platte resident Kristi Pheifer said. "If you live a life of money and secrets, it ends in tragedy."

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This story has been corrected to show that Stacy Phelps has been charged with four felony counts stemming from the investigation, not six.

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Associated Press writer Regina Garcia Cano in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, contributed to this report.