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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, December 26, 2013

WTF journalism and the gifts of the magi

W=Who, What, When, Where, and  Why.  

Have you met Miss Feasance?   If you live in South Dakota, your acquaintance with her is inevitable.  In Aberdeen, she is treated as royalty.  Sometimes a deity. 

One can't be sure whether her personality is defined by clandestine skulduggery or plain, old down-to-earth incompetence.  However, the city and county held a vigil in her honor a week ago without the press there to serve as altar attendant.  But it was there in spirit.  

Two men from White Oak Global, the San Francisco firm that lent Northern Beef Packers $35 million and then was the high bidder for the beef plant a at NBP's bankruptcy auction. at $44 million came to Aberdeen a week ago.  Their advent was dutifully announced a couple days in advance by the local scribe service, with the point being that they would meet with the county commission but there would not be a quorum because only two commissioners would, for some reason, attend the meeting.  It turns out the mayor was also there.  It seems that no reporters were at the actual meeting, so there was no account of who brought the gold, or the frankincense, or the myrrh.  We know that some gulls from China and Korea flew in some gold over the years, but what was really needed was the frankincense and myrrh because they are supposed to make things smell nice, and even though that NBP rendering plant at the side of town never got into real operation, it left a bit of a stench hanging over the community.  And the state.

The puzzler of the coming of the magi from the west is that only two showed up, and the accounts did not specify whether it was Larry, or Curly, or Moe who was there.  But then, when it comes to supplying stooges, the state and the local community are very resourceful.  There is quite a stag line waiting to dance with Miss Feasance.   

The three magi:  two of them came and no one knows their names. 

Apparently, the lack of a quorum made the meeting an unofficial gathering.  Accounts of it were relayed to the scribe by commission members who were there.  So, the usual requirements for a news story,  such as specifying the identity of the magi involved, were not observed.  Identifying information was relayed from county board chairman Duane Sutton:  "One of the White Oak officials, a South Dakota native, specializes in operating plants, Sutton said. The other, he said, is a Minnesota native."

If legitimate officials come to a town representing a legitimate company to do legitimate business, why are their identifies kept secret?:  And in most real newspapers, such a meeting conducted under such anonymous circumstances would, given the import of the Northern Beef Packers fiasco,  be the main point of the story.

But the story went on to detail some of the non-news produced by the visit of the magi:  "In general, the company wanted to introduce itself, Sutton said."  That was quite an introduction.  No names.  No titles.  No information.

The mayor was quoted as saying, "the White Oak officials were careful not to commit to any specific plans or time lines."  The story said the men came to town to do their home work.  They lent NBP $35 million, bid $44-some million on the plant at the bankruptcy auction,  and now they come to town to get informed about the company and the plant?

And so the show goes on.
Who wants the next dance with Miss. Feasance?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The South Dakota solution: legalize graft and, therefore, eliminate corruption in government

          Madville Times has noted that the Attorney General's pronouncement of  Richard Benda's death as a suicide has been met with loud skepticism, disbelief, and denial.   Cory Heidelberger challenged the disbelievers to call their legislators and demand a special session to examine all the documents relative to Northern Beef Packers and the  handling of the EB-5 program which financed the company.  He has reported carefully on Rep. Kathy Tyler (D-Big Stone City) calling for a special session of the legislature to examine the whole NBP mess. 
Asking the GOP-dominated  legislature  in South Dakota to investigate corrupt practices is like opening the hen house door and yelling, "Here Foxy Loxy, come and get it!" One-party rule has long abandoned any semblance of democratic integrity or the notion of serving the people.  Corruption and dismissive tyranny are what a majority of South Dakota seems to think serves them.  The legislature is an expression of the values and  character of those who put it in office.  At some point the people must realize that they are accountable for the those they have chosen to represent them.  Perhaps we have reached that point, but denial and deliberate ignorance is a way of life for many South Dakotans. 
The bankruptcy of Northern Beef Packers, the death of Richard Benda, and the handling of the EB-5 program are all incidents in a larger pattern of privilege, secrecy, and corruption in the state.  The Attorney General has tried to dismiss any further investigation with his report on Benda's death by terming it a suicide and linking it to  apparent double-dipping in expense reimbursements and to the diversion of state grant money specified for Northern Beef Packers construction to cover some EB-5 loan acquisition expenses.  He seems to hope that Benda's death will also terminate any interest in Benda's activities and relationships.  Many aspects of Benda's death were not accounted for in the Attorney General's report.  Many questions were left unanswered.  A few reporters have awakened to the fact that the casual and timid reporting on state government has let a culture of decadent greed and repression develop and flourish and become the dominant influence in the state.  That culture has written the laws governing access to public records.  Every law dealing with access to public records and the right to know is laced with loopholes that permit even the dullest of bureaucrats and politicians to find ways to deny the public any knowledge of what officials are doing. 
The case involving the death of Richard Benda is similar in the unanswered questions to the death of Morgan Lewis at Northern State University the Monday morning before the general election of 2004.  He was found dead by a door to his office building.  There was no suicide note, no indication that he was in a depressed mental state, and no known circumstances that might put him in such a state.  Initially, the coroner termed the death a homicide.
It occurred in a time of turmoil within the Aberdeen Police Department.  A chief had been dismissed.  Two detectives were fired.  And the policeman who was assigned to the NSU campus and was working at the time of the death ran into a conflict about the way he handled the situation and suddenly resigned.
After months of speculation and gossip, the chief of police declared the death a suicide.  The coroner's report was revised to indicate that conclusion.  Outside experts were allegedly consulted, but their reports were never made public.  Although the chief alluded to the evidence in a few published interviews, there was never a coherent explanation made that accounted for all the evidence and circumstances involved in the death.  During the turmoil with department personnel, the public was denied any explanation on the basis that
it was a private personnel matter and, therefore, excluded from public examination.  The record of the investigation of Morgan Lewis' death was treated in the same manner under the claim that issues of privacy were involved.  The result was that no examination of the records of the investigation were made public, leaving skepticism and suspicion about the integrity of the investigation and the validity of the conclusion. 
Nine years after the death of Morgan Lewis, there is still doubt and skepticism about Lewis' death.  Many specific facts involved in the case have never been made public, and the people have been told that the officials they pay  to carry out their business have decided that confidentiality of personnel matters and rights to privacy overrule the public's right to know what their public servants are doing. 
 In South Dakota, the politician who runs for office to do what is best for all the people of the state is rare.  Most politicians in South Dakota are in office to impose a bigoted ideology on the state.  From their bigoted, ignorant, and self-absorbed perspectives,  they promulgate policies which keep wages hovering around the poverty level, enforce racist discriminations, and send young people with an inclination toward decency high-tailing it for other places and other cultures.  The spirit that dominates and rules over South Dakota is viciously discriminatory and openly repressive against people and ideas that tend toward liberal tolerance.  For a time, while the state has consistently elected people who are characterized by the dominant party line, it elected more progressive representatives to federal offices.  Although, the dominant attitude in the state is against big government,  the people elected Democrats to get more than their share of the federal dole for them.  And some people voted Democratic because they really wanted a few people in government that provided support and progress for them.  However, a demographic shift from attrition, the flight of the young and talented to other places, and their displacement by people who moved into South Dakota longing for Jim Crow and an Old Testament theology fixed on hatred and vengeance, have changed the electoral balance.  Equality, justice, and concern for the poor are deliberately omitted from the planks of those who claim to be conservatives.   
The dominant political attitude shapes the state of freedom of information in South Dakota.  The state ranks 47th among the 50 states on the Better Government Association Integrity Index.  People in the state are denied the right to monitor the performance of their public officials and to require accountability for how their offices are conducted.  The bankruptcy of Northern Beef Packers,  the EB-5 program, the alleged suicide of Richard Benda have produced a definitive demonstration of the sneaking and repressive mode of doing business of state government.  But the laws governing access to information and the duties of officials give the sneaking and oppression legal cover. 
From the time that the Northern Beef Packers plant was proposed through its bankruptcy,  it  has been frustrating to know and evaluate the proceedings.  South Dakota corporation law allows a blanket of secrecy to cover all corporate business, keeping secret just who comprises the business.    But South Dakota law maintains that blanket of secrecy when government gets involved, too. Any business can get a full, detailed credit report on any individual.  But no one can get any information about the legitimacy and financial integrity of any business operation. 
Northern Beef Packers was a business scheme about which there was much justified skepticism.  It grew out of a recognition that a beef packing plant in this region was a desirable and feasible idea.  It earned serious consideration from producers who made an earnest study of the possibility of a producer-owned cooperative.   A hard fact is that very few cooperative ventures by agricultural producers succeed, as demonstrated by the attempts of wheat producers to make pasta in North Dakota.  Agricultural co-ops seem doomed to failure because farmers are not very co-operative when it comes to running businesses.  So, the farmer-owned beef packing plant was abandoned,  but the potential for a regional beef packer to succeed was recognized.
Attempts to launch a beef-packing plant with state help failed, first in Huron, and then in Flandreau.  Some promoters with devious schemes and other promoters who posed as entrepreneurs but had not the vaguest idea of how to start and run a packing plant put a murky taint on the whole idea.  When plans were abandoned for Flandreau, the economic development organization there and the Farmers Union were out  money they had invested in development plans.  The same people behind the scheme in Huron and Flandreau suggested the plant for Aberdeen, but were not involved in its development.  
From the  outset, supporters of  the NBP idea recognized that the plant would have to compete with the big four in beef packing who control 80 percent of the market.  However, they also recognized that a regional plant would have shipping and distribution advantages for both cattle-raisers and consumers.  As the idea for the plant progressed,  some of its supporters also recognized that there is a growing market for cattle not fed growth hormones and anti-biotics, for grass-fed premium beef, and for beef that could be tracked from birth to customer.   South Dakota Certified Beef was part of a plan to market specialty, premium beef that the big four packers are not equipped to produce.  This business model had two essential components:
  1. It required the development of a customer base.  This could most quickly and efficiently be done by becoming part of a distribution program that features and promotes premium beef, such as the ones branded Angus and Amish.
  2. The model also was dependent upon success for delivering exactly the quality of beef promised at the precise time it is promised. 
Industrial cattle feeding  hormones, anti-biotics, manure
This business model must have production facilities geared to serving this specialty market, something that the big four producers are too large and inflexible to economically do.  The NBP  plan would provide ranchers and farmers with a competitive market that disappeared with the closing of the stockyards.  When cattle were shipped to the stockyards,  buyers from competing companies would bid on the animals.  Most beef today is raised by contract in feedlots that finish the cattle with growth hormones that speed up the rate at which the cattle put on weight and anti-biotics to combat the diseases that thrive in the crowded, manure-laden, industrialized environment.  Most beef is sold directly to one of the big four packers--Tyson, Cargill, JBS, National Beef--who are more interested in keeping their industrial processes running cheaply and smoothly than in providing customers what they want. 

Early in its development, Northern Beef Packers had signed on with a marketing-distribution organization based upon the Angus brand. However, the marketing organization dropped NBP when delays and financial problems created uncertainties about the plant.  Beef producers supported the plant and hoped that the problems could be solved, but also understood that the controlling priority was a market for the beef it processed. 

A significant factor that is largely glossed over is that NBP could not attract domestic investors.  It found little market for its TIF bonds, and other investors were warned away by the constant uncertainties in NBP's financing and development plans.  Consequently,  NBP became dependent on the EB-5 investments for its formation and operation, and seemed to gear itself more to exporting its beef to the countries where those investments originated--Korea and China--than in the domestic market it once had envisioned.  By the time NBP actually began to process cattle, its programs for tracking its cattle, supplying specialty markets, and producing certified beef were no longer mentioned on its website or in its promotional materials. 

And here is where the corporate and governmental secrecy and the timidity of the press in covering the development of the NBP became complicit in the disaster which led to the apparent suicide, the loss of  tens of millions by foreign investors, the major screw-over of workers, and exposure of a government mired in a financial-finagle carried out with astounding incompetence.  The public knew that NBP was on very shaky, if not sinkhole ground, in its finances through the multi-million dollars worth of mechanic's liens filed against it, as reported in the press.  What was not reported was that the state economic development office had evidence that the company was floundering.  Both the local and state development agencies knew there were problems but chose to continue to promote the venture as an economic opportunity, not a financial and managerial disaster.  Bob Mercer brought this to light when he reviewed the minutes of the State Board of Economic Development and the State Economic Development Finance Authority prior to the blocking of an EB-5 loan.  The State Board of Economic Development committed itself to loan NBP $5 million and the Economic Development Finance Authority $20 million,  both contingent upon NBP meeting certain specifications before the loans were actually made.  I don't think they were ever made, but it would have been nice if local government agencies,  potential investors,  cattle producers, potential employees, and the community in general would have known about the loan commitments and the reservations the boards had about the venture. Here is an outline of the boards' proceedings obtained by Bob Mercer:   
  • State Board of Economic Development
  • Jan. 2010,  commits to $ 5 million loan with stipulated conditions to be met.
  • Jan. 27, 2011, conditions not met; loan commitment extended 3 months.
  • April 12, 2011, conditions not met; commitment extended 1 month.
  • June 27, 2011, conditions not met,   commitment extended 6 months.
  • June 12, 2012, an unexplained request from NBP is denied.
  • Sept. 12, 2012,  commitment to loan is extended to March 1, 20013

  • Economic Development Finance Authority
  • Feb. 2010,  commits to $20 million loan with conditions to NBP.
  • July 2011, notes at meeting that conditions have no been met.
  • Oct. 6, 2011. extends commitment 6 months.
  • July 19, 2012, approves extension with conditions.
  • Oct. 10. 2012, extends commitment to March 1, 2013.
  • Feb. 21, 2013, extends commitment to March 1, 2014.

       July 19, 2013, NBP files for bankruptcy.

Anyone who has dealt with government records, or corporate records of transactions  will be struck by the fact that the minutes cited above do not record any essential facts or provide any specific information about the actions taken.   The examination of the minutes by Bob Mercer reveals that no substantive records have been kept.  While most other states with freedom of information laws would be required to produce full records explaining what the loans were for, what conditions were placed upon them, and why the conditions were not met and the deadlines were extended,  that information is not available under the rules by which South Dakota operates. 

The matter of Northern Beef Packers, the EB-5 loans, and the death of Richard Benda reveal that the state is set up to conduct business in an under-handed, secretive way so that the citizens cannot learn what the state is doing and how it is doing it.  This is a custom that goes back to the Bill Janklow days when bank transactions and accounts were kept secret from the elected state treasurer.   

Mercer was further denied access to the records surrounding Richard Benda's death when the attorney general decided that such records would not be released if a member of Benda's family objected to the release.  Richard Benda was a former state official whose actions as that state official have been called into question by his death.  Every detail of his life that affects his record of performance as a state official is public business.  But under the ;protection of state law, the attorney general seems to be hiding corruption and connivery with a specious and viciously cynical act of legal skullduggery.

The late comedian Roger Price was a network commentator during political conventions many years ago.  In announcing a fake run for president, he said his platform was to legalize graft and, therefore, eliminate corruption in government.  With South Dakota's laws on access to government records and public information,  the state seems to have applied what was satire.   Once again, the people of the state are being played for dupes. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

South Dakota is number one again.

In paying teachers the lowest in the nation.   And folks keep puzzling about why the young and talented don't want to live here.  The map and list is from the Washington Post.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Thank God, it's over: that travesty we call Thanksgiving

Hell, yes, the survivors were thankful.  Of the 102 English people who embarked on the Mayflower for America, only 53 were alive for what has been termed the first thanksgiving.  That number included only four women.  The reason for a harvest festival in 1621 was because they had a very successful growing year under the tutelage of the Indian Squanto. The many deaths during that first winter were from disease, scurvy being a leading cause.  The people were forced to live on the Mayflower because they had arrived in the winter and did not have time to build shelters and find a source of more nutritious food.   Scurvy was a common illness among sailors and other people who lived on ship for months at a time and  did not have access to fruits and vegetables.  They lived largely on dried and salted meat and suffered from the lack of vitamin C, which is what scurvy is. 

Rations were tight.  The pilgrims plundered an Indian village of its stored corn and other food supplies.  The place they settled for their village was an abandoned Indian village where the people had died off from the plague brought over from Europe.  The first colonists did not see much of the Indians that winter.  Because of their past experience with Europeans--they killed Indians and sold captives as slaves--the Indians stayed away from them.  In March, an Indian named Samoset showed up and welcomed them in English.  He, in turn, introduced them to Squanto, who had been taken captive, sent to Europe as a slave, where he learned English, and found his way back to America. Squanto taught the pilgrims  the Indian techniques for growing corn, but as importantly he taught them which berries were edible as a source for vitamin C  and where to find them.

When the people at Plymouth Plantation harvested their first crop which included 20 acres of corn, they found, according to their accounts, that they had enough to provide each person with a peck a week to last until the next harvest.  With their prospects so improved, the governor ordered a harvest celebration.  This included a  feast and the discharge of firearms in salute.  Historians surmise that the sound of gun fire caused some alarm among the neighboring Wampanoag people, which dispatched 90 men to see what was going on.  When they found it to be a celebration,  they joined in.   William Bradford's account tells of preparing for the feast by sending out a hunting party to obtain some fowl, fish, and other food stuffs.  He does mention turkeys specifically, but not as the main item on their three-day menu.  The Wampanoags sent out a hunting party, also, which came back with five deer, which they presented to the leaders. 

Herein lies a source of misunderstanding that defines our Thanksgiving holiday.  The Plymouth pilgrims were there on behalf of a company.  Their purpose was to make a profit for the investors of that company.  While they also hoped to find religious freedom and prospects for decent lives, their controlling purpose was to generate profits.  Their idea of engaging in trade was defined by those profits.  Just as their predecessors had taken Indians as captives and sold them as slaves at twenty dollars a head, the pilgrims saw their economic duty as exploiting and plundering, if necessary, their new land.  To them, trade was taking advantage.  In Lakota, the term wasichu, refers to this concept.  It means the greedy or avaricious ones. 

The Indians, on the other hand, were an exchange culture.  When they traded gifts and ideas, their motive was to produce mutual benefit.  Their concept is expressed in providing the pilgrims with five deer after sharing their harvest feast.  They also shared means of survival by having Squanto teach the pilgrims how to plant and harvest the natural bounty from the American landscape.  Trade to them was to exchange goods and ideas for mutual benefit.  It was the operative concept throughout the nations that peopled North American before the Europeans moved in. 

During that first harvest celebration, two different and opposing concepts of human organization were present.  The pilgrims represented a culture that was based on avarice and a corporate mode of social organization for which avarice was the operating principle.  The Indians represented a culture based upon sharing and mutual benefit.  In their value system, the concept was not to gain wealth, but to create sustaining relationships.  When native nations found themselves in competition with each other,  they tried to establish agreements or treaties to make an exchange relationship.  When, for some reason, that did not work, they went to war.  Domination and exploitation of other people was not their purpose.  Their purpose was to avoid exploitation and depletion of the land. 

When it comes to the concept of Thanksgiving, Indian people have consistently made the point throughout history that in their culture, every day is a thanksgiving.  Acknowledgment and appreciation for the benefits that nature provides forms the dominant aspect of their culture.  Consequently, they resist the exploitive and predatory aspects of the white culture.  The white culture considers them backward and indolent because they do not embrace avarice as a controlling motve around which to build enterprises and culture. 

Both native American and Euro-American cultures  have strong traditions of hospitality.  Warring tribes are recorded as giving food and shelter to even their enemies.  Turning down a request for hospitality brought shame and stigma on a nation.  The settling of the American frontier was made possibWhenle by the custom of hospitality.  As people ventured into the wilderness, they had to depend upon the hospitality of those who preceded them to provide food and shelter.  In popular culture, it was called the Cowboy Code:  you invited people in to your campsite to rest and refresh, and they were welcome as long as they asked no nosy, probing questions. 

When the Wampanoags  became convinced that the pilgrims had not come to kill them or take them captive and sell them as slaves, they offered hospitality to them.  They helped them plant the abandoned village that they renamed Plimouth Plantation, and they signed a treaty with them.  The first Thanksgiving was both an acknowledgment of the bounty the land produced and of the rule of hospitality through which the Indians accommodated the pilgrims. The pilgrims seemed to suspend their profit motives and participated in the exchange culture.  That seemed to be the prevailing way of observing Thanksgiving as it was made a national holiday and an acknowledgment of sharing. 

However, the corporate mentality has changed Thanksgiving to be something quite other.  The Friday after Thanksgiving for decades was a day when people had time off and were thinking of the Christmas and New Years holidays a month away.  It was a time to begin buying Christmas gifts.  As corporations realized it was a big shopping day, they seized upon the idea of Black Friday.  And now Black Friday has crept into Thanksgiving, grey Thursday, if you will.

The culture has changed largely through the corporate mentality which has seized control of the media and other influences on popular culture and conditioned the nation into a competitive frenzy to buy. 

The Black Friday ritual of degradation.
The U.S. has been brainwashed to the point that it is a contender to being one of the stupidest, meanest nations on the planet.  Black Friday has become a ritual of human degradation, of frenzied greed, as people have been gulled into behaving like dogs in a pack fighting over a bone.   

It struck our family.  When the Congresswoman my wife worked for lost an election, my wife, of course, lost a job.  While the search continues, she took a part-time job in a department store, which became fulltime.  On Thanksgiving, she went to work at 7 p.m. and got off at 4 a.m. Friday, on which she reported for work again at 1 p.m.   The corporate mentality has affected our household and the way we schedule family gatherings.

My wife recounted a woman customer who could not resist spreading some holiday good wishes.  After completing her purchase, the woman said she could not leave without spreading the word about how bad Obamacare is.  She brought this up out of the blue.  It is just one symptom of how the media has conditioned a segment of the population to recite political slogans, like Pavlov's dog salivating at the ding of a bell. 

Thanksgiving was once a day of sharing.  Christmas was once a time, whether people were Christian or not, for extolling peace on earth and good will toward all people.  New Years a point in the cycle of human affairs of assessing and making the new year better than the old. 

South Dakota is undergoing the revelation of corruption in its governments economic dealings. In the name of bolstering the economy for the people, we discovered some bad schemes and the exploitation and devastation that accompanies them.  It was hard to think of Thanksgiving without thinking of the man who died in a shelterbelt, ostensibly by his own hand, of the many people throughout the world and the country who were bilked out of millions of dollars, and of the hundreds of people who lost jobs.  The state shared a terrible sickness of the soul, not the fruits of productivity and the extension of hospitality.

And we anticipate what plans the corporate mentality has for Christmas this year and the New Year.   For many people, "merry" and "happy" will not be in their vocabulary.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States