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Across the Region: September 1


Governor considering lawsuit to recover EB-5 money

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard is considering filing a lawsuit to recover $550,000 meant to go to a beef plant involved in an investment-for-green-card program.

A private lawyer has been working for months to determine whether the state can reclaim the money.

The EB-5 investment visa program is under scrutiny in South Dakota because of allegations of financial misconduct at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

A state audit found that before Richard Benda left his job as head of economic development in 2010, he tacked on an extra $550,000 to a grant agreement to help the struggling Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen.

A report from Attorney General Marty Jackley showed the same amount was improperly diverted to SDRC Inc., Benda’s new employer and South Dakota’s administrator of the EB-5 visa program, which allows people to seek U.S. residency if they invest at least $500,000 in approved projects.

To prevail in court, the state would have to prove that it was entitled to receive its money and then find a way to get those funds, the newspaper reported. But even if the state makes a case, it could still come out empty-handed if the money has been spent or is not accessible.

A draft criminal complaint, which Jackley has released, would have charged Benda with three alternate felony counts alleging he illegally obtained $550,000 in economic development money intended for the Northern Beef Packers plant and double-billed the state $5,559.80 for three flights to China and Las Vegas.


USD law school ranked 5th for best value

The University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion has been ranked as the fifth “best value” nationwide for the fourth year in a row by preLaw magazine.

It takes into consideration passage of the state bar, in-state tuition, debt and the percent of graduates employed nine months after getting their degree.

Other regional schools in the top 20 include the University of Nebraska at No. 2, the University of Wyoming at No. 9, University of Missouri at 14th place, University of Wisconsin at No. 15 and the University of Kansas at 18th.


Owner, companies plead guilty to U.S. contract fraud

A Nebraska businessman and two construction companies he controlled pleaded guilty to criminal charges, admitting to a scheme to obtain millions of dollars in contracts that were meant to go to companies run by disabled veterans.

Ram Hingorani pleaded guilty to major program fraud under an agreement that is expected to resolve a long-running case in federal court in Des Moines. Midwest Paving Inc. pleaded guilty to money laundering, while Midwest Contracting Inc. pleaded guilty to major program fraud and wire fraud.

Prosecutors dismissed charges against Ronald Waugh, a disabled Vietnam-era veteran from Glenwood, Iowa.

Hingorani and Waugh started Midwest Contracting in 2007, claiming that Waugh controlled its operations, which allowed the company to participate in a program that gives preference to small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans. Waugh was designated as service-disabled for hearing loss in 2007 and tinnitus in 2008. Hingorani, who is not a veteran, admitted in the plea agreement that he actually ran the company’s daily operations and had an option to purchase Waugh’s shares at any time.

Midwest Contracting won more than $23 million in contracts for construction work for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Des Moines and Omaha and at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.


Seed company sued by migrant workers

A major seed company is being sued by 32 migrant farm workers and seven of their children over the workers’ claims that they were underpaid and experienced unsafe conditions and poor housing while removing tassels from corn in southwestern Michigan.

The workers are mostly from Texas and were hired in 2012 to work in Cass County. Detasseling is hot, labor-intensive work that occurs while the corn still is in the ground.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Grand Rapids, accuses Johnston, Iowa-based DuPont Pioneer and two recruiters of violating federal wage and migrant labor laws. The allegations include poor housing, unsafe transportation to the fields and inadequate water.

The suit said that the defendants housed the workers and their families “in mobile trailers and a renovated farm building, which failed to comply with state and federal health and safety requirements.”

It said the defendants also violated their rights by “providing false and misleading information at the time of recruitment regarding the terms and conditions of employment; failing to provide potable water, toilets and hand-washing facilities for plaintiffs while they worked in the fields; and failing to pay plaintiffs for all the hours of work performed.”

The seed company said the claims were untrue.


Omaha man arrested after ice bucket challenge

Participating in the ice bucket challenge to raise funds to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease landed a 20-year-old Omaha man in jail.

Police arrested Jesean Morris last week after he posted a video of himself taking the challenge online.

Officer Kevin Wiese says a tipster who knew Morris had an outstanding warrant called police after seeing the video. The person reporting the tip was able to identify the house where Morris shot the video.

Morris was paroled in March while serving a 2010 sentence for attempted assault. Police say when they approached Morris, he gave a false name and spit in an officer’s face.

The ALS Association says it’s raised more than $53 million as participants drench themselves with a bucket of ice water.


Jail adds email option after inmates complain

A central Nebraska jail is now offering email service because inmates complained about the cost of in-state phone calls.

The Hall County jail added email after it started housing 80 to 100 inmates for the state in July. A weekly subscription costs $2; a monthly one costs $8. Inmates have up to 1,000 characters per email.

County Corrections Director Fred Ruiz said the state inmates have been more demanding since they arrived, but the jail staff is making adjustments. For instance, the state inmates complained about the jail’s food shortly after they arrived, so portions were increased.

Nebraska is sending some of its inmates to county jails to help relieve prison crowding without building a new prison. State officials estimated this spring that Nebraska’s prison system was at 158 percent of its capacity.

Making phone calls from the jail can add up quickly if an inmate isn’t calling in the Grand Island area. A local call costs $3.75 for 15 minutes, but a 15-minute call to Omaha costs $14.30 because the jail’s carrier charges $3.95 plus 69 cents per minute.



Oil-patch killing suspect fights competency ruling

A mentally disabled Colorado man accused of killing a Montana teacher and burying her body in North Dakota is asking the state Supreme Court to reverse a judge’s ruling that he is fit to stand trial.

An attorney for Michael Spell, 25, filed a petition asking the justices to rule that District Judge Richard Simonton was wrong when he concluded in May that Spell could assist in his own defense.

Spell faces a complicated murder trial that will include more than 130 witnesses and numerous exhibits, attorney Al Avignone said in the filing.

The defendant is “intellectually disabled, illiterate and has significant deficits in understanding language and articulating thoughts,” Avignone wrote.

Spell reads at a second-grade level and cannot write much beyond his own name, the attorney said. Psychiatrists say Spell has a low IQ and doesn’t understand some basic life tasks.

Those mental disabilities prompted prosecutors in May to drop their pursuit of the death penalty in his case. A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling banned executions of mentally disabled people as cruel and unusual punishment.

Spell is charged with the attempted kidnapping and deliberate homicide in the killing of Sidney High School teacher Sherry Arnold, 43, who disappeared while on a morning jog in January 2012. Her body was found more than two months later in a shallow grave in nearby North Dakota at the center of the Bakken oil boom.


Simplot workers, officials reach deal, end strike

Workers at the J.R. Simplot Co. potato processing plant in Grand Forks have reached a contract agreement with the company after being on strike for almost three weeks.

Union members agreed to the latest contract Aug. 22. Nearly 200 union employees walked off the job Aug. 4.

Employees will now work 12-hour shifts with a limit of 14 hours, but they’ll work fewer days per week. They previously worked five eight-hour days without a cap.

The contract takes effect immediately, but it will take until October to get all shift logistics ironed out.

Union officials say both sides had to make compromises to reach a deal.

The Grand Forks plant makes french fries and other potato products for fast food restaurants.


Court asked to keep documents secret in John Doe

A federal appeals court’s mistaken disclosure of documents related to a secret investigation into whether Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups “caused real harm to real people,” attorneys said in a request for the court to keep all other documents private.

A clerk for the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals mistakenly posted four documents online Aug. 22 that included excerpts from emails showing Walker’s recall election campaign team told him to instruct donors to give to a key conservative group that would run ads for Walker and distribute money to other groups backing him. The documents were available briefly on a court website before they were taken down.

In a motion filed Aug. 23 on behalf of two unnamed individuals, attorneys said the documents revealed private information about people who have not been charged with crimes and who have done nothing wrong.

Investigators believe Walker personally solicited donations for Wisconsin Club for Growth to get around campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements. The appeals court has gradually been releasing certain documents in the case, mostly briefs and other legal filings. But those documents refer to investigators’ statements, bank statements, emails and other materials.

Attorneys for the unnamed individuals asked the appeals court to keep all documents related to the case private, at least until additional briefs are filed leading up to oral arguments on Sept. 9.


Evaluation ordered in naked home invasion case

A Fond du Lac man accused of entering unlocked homes while he was naked will be evaluated to see if he is competent to stand trial.

Lucas Leffel’s attorney requested the evaluation.

The Leffel, 26, is accused of entering four homes. He’s charged with three counts of burglary and four counts of second-degree sexual assault of an unconscious victim.

The criminal complaint says he entered one home on Aug. 9 and touched a sleeping woman, but she woke up and he ran. Leffel allegedly told authorities he attempted to touch another woman at another house, but a man woke up and chased him.

The complaint says Leffel told authorities he has been addicted to pornography since age 11.

Across the Region is compiled from Associated Press wire, staff reports and news releases.

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