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Policy: Immigration

Questions raised about immigration program in 2008

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Associated Press,Immigration,South Dakota

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — State officials began upping their oversight of a private company contracted to solicit foreign investors in 2012, but questions were first raised about South Dakota's use of the federal investment-for-green-cards immigration program four years earlier.

The Government Operations and Audit Committee in 2008 wanted information about a little-known nonprofit at Northern State University called the South Dakota International Business Institute and its director, Joop Bollen.

Sen. Larry Tidemann, then a House member on that committee, said he and some colleagues wanted information on how the institute was funded and how the state was benefiting.

"We knew there were a lot of trips back and forth to Korea," Tidemann, R-Brookings, said. "Typically state employees don't have the budget to do that."

In September, the South Dakota Governor's Office of Economic Development ended its contract with Bollen's privately held SDRC Inc. to administer the federal EB-5 immigration program, in which foreign investors can secure permanent residency for as little as $500,000.

Officials have not specified the cause, but Tony Venhuizen, a spokesman for Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said it became clear that SDRC needed better oversight.

Bollen, reached at his home Tuesday, said he didn't want to talk to the press.

Daugaard acknowledged last week that an investigation was underway into the Office of Economic Development involving possible financial misconduct prior to his administration. Daugaard said there has also been a federal investigation, but declined to provide details of either.

Richard Benda, who served as secretary of the department that handles tourism and economic development from 2006 to 2010 under former Gov. Michael Rounds, was found dead with a gunshot wound on Oct. 22 near Lake Andes. Autopsy results are pending.

Benda also served as loan monitor for the Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen, a project spurred by EB-5 funds that is now under federal bankruptcy protection.

Rounds said Tuesday he thinks the beef plant developers had a viable business model but the project was underfunded.

"I think it was a lot bigger project than they thought it was in the beginning and it just kept growing," he told The Associated Press.

Venhuizen said GOED's contract had called for SDRC to seek permission from the state to market projects, but that requirement was not being followed. GOED in 2012 also made the firm sign a deposit control agreement to give the state access to SDRC's accounts.

"That was one step to reassert control over them," Venhuizen said.

Rounds said he felt all regulations were followed and the EB-5 program has been successful in drawing foreign investment to the state.

The South Dakota International Business Institute was developed in 1994 as a cooperative effort between the state of South Dakota and Northern State University in Aberdeen.

Jim Smith said that when he took over as Northern State University's president in 2009, he recognized that the institute was focusing mostly on EB-5 work and wasn't integrated with classroom teachings, so Bollen moved off campus and signed a state contract to do the same job as SDRC Inc.

Rounds said it was a strategic decision to separate the state from the regional center roles of marketing the projects to investors and overseeing the financing, since the EB-5 money was from private donors going to private companies.

He said South Dakota officials continued to audit any state funds going to economic development projects.

Tidemann said the operations and audit committee didn't have the opportunity to ask questions of the SDRC again.

"We never saw it again that much," he said.

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