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South Dakota's trust industry front-and-center at pro-Ukrainian rally in Sioux Falls

An American citizen born in Ukraine told a gathering at a park in downtown Sioux Falls on Friday that her heart has been "ripped open" for her homeland. But she also feels angry that "the Russian elite" profit off of her state's opaque trust laws.

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Regina Brunz, a Sioux Falls resident and native of Ukraine, spoke to a pro-Ukraine rally in Lyon Park near downtown Sioux Falls on Friday, March 4, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Decades ago, Regina Brunz's family fled religious persecution under a communist regime in what today is Ukraine.

She's now a U.S. citizen, loves South Dakota, and loves freedom.

But she also despises that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is invading her Ukraine homeland, may be profiting off of liberal trusts laws in her own backyard here in the U.S.

"I have always been proud of being a South Dakotan," Brunz told a gathering of 30 people in Lyon Park in downtown Sioux Falls on Friday, March 4. "But I feel angry that the Russian elite, the Russian wealthy may be profiting off our laws."

South Dakota politicians have expressed support for the American ally facing a military invasion from neighboring Russia. The state Senate passed a pro-Ukraine resolution this week, and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken asked that the city be lit in blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine's flag.

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Chuck Larson, of Sioux Falls, holds up a sign at a pro-Ukraine rally in Sioux Falls on Friday, March 4, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

As the U.S. and the world look to tighten economic pressure on Putin, some in South Dakota are again turning their attention to the state's disproportionate number of secretive trusts, many of which are headquartered just blocks away from Friday's rally, down Phillips Avenue.

"We hope to convince our Legislature to freeze the Russian trusts or assets," said Joan McMillan, a Sioux Falls resident who attended the rally.

Chuck Larson, also of Sioux Falls, was more blunt in his assessment of the state's response to the crisis in Ukraine.

"We've literally done nothing so far," said Larson. "South Dakota needs to do more."

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(From left to right) Irena Chernatinski, Daniel Brunz, Andy Sivertson, and Regina Brunz (Daniel's wife and Irena's niece), stand near Lyon Park in downtown Sioux Falls prior to giving speeches before a pro-Ukraine rally on March 4, 2022.<br/>
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

In neighboring North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum ordered a meeting of the state's investment board to discuss Russian investments in light of the attack on Ukraine. On Friday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz ordered the canceling of certain contracts between the state and Russian entities.

South Dakota's statewide office-holders, including Gov. Kristi Noem, Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, and Rep. Dusty Johnson, have all called upon the U.S. to ramp up domestic energy production.

Few, if any, elected officials in the state have spoken out on potential, if unproven Russian oligarchs' ties to the state's trust industry, which was revealed to be housing accounts linked to foreign strong-men in a fall report published in The Washington Post .

Last month, responding to reporters' questions about bringing greater scrutiny to the industry, Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack, R-Union Center, said the industry has done due diligence to root-out bad actors from accounts.

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"I have every confidence in the world that sort of thing is not happening in South Dakota," Cammack said.

In an interview on Tuesday, March 1, congressman Johnson similarly said, "The Russian government does not have trusts in South Dakota."

On Friday, the South Dakota Division of Banking released a memo to the state's trusts announcing that the federal list of sanctioned persons was being "actively" updated and that every trust company should be proactive in ensuring there are no financial transactions with persons on that list, according to a statement from the South Dakota Trust Association.

Irena Chernatinski, a Ukrainian-American and aunt to Regina Brunz, told those gathered in Sioux Falls Friday that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky had a long wish list of assistance from the U.S., starting with military support in the air.

"The president was asking [to] protect our skies. We can do everything on the ground," said Chernatinski. "Just protect our skies."

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Irena Chernatinski, a Sioux Falls woman and American citizen born in Ukraine, speaks to a pro-Ukraine rally on Friday, March 4, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

Brunz was moved between tears of anger and sadness as she spoke of her sick grandmother in Ukraine, the bombs blowing up roads, and the men who have "decided to give their lives for the country's safety."

Before their speeches, Brunz told her aunt that she'd last visited Ukraine in 2018. They agreed they missed the "cherry season," as her aunt scrolled through the messages on her phone she had from family still in Ukraine.

"There has been a lot of inaction on the side of the United States. We are allowing this bully to perform genocide on my people," said Chernatinski.

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And she, too, thought of those Ukrainians, such as her brother, protecting their homes a world away.

"They've been very gutsy," she said, as a car drove past on Phillips Avenue and honked in support. "They are strong. And the world has seen this."

Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at cvondracek@forumcomm.com , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

MORE FROM CHRISTOPHER VONDRACEK:
The state's biggest political leaders have touted inbound migration, so-called "blue state refugees" who flooded South Dakota. But the biggest driver of partisan races this coming summer and fall appears to be a redistricting process, log-jamming Republicans in primaries and opening up new turf for Democrats.

Related Topics: UKRAINESIOUX FALLS
Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at cvondracek@forumcomm.com or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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