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Attorney general to push for tough conflict-of-interest laws

PIERRE (AP) -- Attorney General Marty Jackley plans to push for a set of measures during the next legislative session that would require state agencies to notify his office when criminal conflicts of interest appear and impose harsher penalties o...

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PIERRE (AP) - Attorney General Marty Jackley plans to push for a set of measures during the next legislative session that would require state agencies to notify his office when criminal conflicts of interest appear and impose harsher penalties on people who benefit from such conflicts.

South Dakota's top prosecutor said he hopes new laws would require felony charges for those who benefit from conflicts of interest.

South Dakota has seen scandals recently, including alleged theft and an attempted cover-up at a Platte-based educational cooperative and what authorities have called financial misconduct involving the EB-5 visa program.

Jackley said he is frustrated he can't bring conflict-of-interest charges in either instance, though people involved face other felony charges, including three people who have ties to South Dakota's GEAR UP college-readiness grant program.

Authorities launched that inquiry last year 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 Educational Cooperative, where Scott and Nicole Westerhuis worked, that it was losing a federal contract for GEAR UP.

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In the EB-5 investigation, the man who once ran South Dakota's scandal-ridden investment-for-visa program is accused of financial misconduct while he oversaw it.

A top aide to Gov. Dennis Daugaard says the governor thinks recently passed conflict laws have helped, and that Daugaard is working with Jackley on legislation for 2017.

Lawmakers who helped draft current conflict of interest legislation told the newspaper that they would work with Jackley, but weren't sure the bills were necessary.

"If you can prove theft or fraud, you face a felony charge," Republican Rep. Mark Mickelson said. "I'm not opposed to considering it, but I feel like there are fact patterns where they'd face felony charges already.

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