South Dakota ethics board grinds forward on Noem complaints

Stephen Groves
Associated Press

Sioux Falls, S.D. – A South Dakota ethics board on Monday moved to hire an outside attorney as it considers a pair of ethics complaints against Gov. Kristi Noem, delaying its decision on whether to investigate allegations the governor interfered in a state agency evaluating her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser license and misused state airplanes.

After meeting for roughly an hour in a closed-door executive session, the retired judges who sit on the Government Accountability Board decided they needed legal advice, but that it shouldn’t come from the lawyer who usually advises the board because she works in the attorney general’s office. That lawyer, Katie Mallery, has been recused from legal matters in the complaints.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, speaks Feb. 25, 2022, in Orlando, Fla.

Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, who is a Republican like Noem, initiated the complaints after media reports on Noem’s actions in office. The board’s decision Monday was a procedural move as it approaches a key juncture for the complaints.

The board requested in February that Noem respond to the complaints and will eventually decide whether they should dismiss or investigate them.

“We have not yet made an initial determination, and so we’re going to consult with an attorney about that,” said the board’s chair Lori Wilbur, a retired Supreme Court justice.

The board’s consideration of the complaints has stretched since last year and happened entirely in private meetings. Democratic Rep. Linda Duba, who was at Monday’s meeting, expressed frustration at the laws governing the board, which was created in 2017 but has never handled high-profile allegations against the state’s top official.

“For a law that was passed that was supposed to provide transparency, we’re in the dark,” she said.

The Associated Press reported that the governor took a hands-on role in the appraiser certification agency while it was evaluating her daughter’s application for an appraiser license in 2020. Just days after the Department of Labor and Regulation moved to deny her daughter’s application, Noem called a meeting with her daughter, the labor secretary and the then-director of the appraiser certification program.

The agency’s director, Sherry Bren, told a legislative committee last year that she felt “intimidated” at the meeting, where she said Peters’ unsuccessful application was discussed in detail and a plan was formulated that gave her another chance to apply. Noem’s office, defending the governor’s conduct, has said the plan was already in the works before the meeting.

The attorney general’s other complaint was sparked by a report from Raw Story, an online news website. Noem in 2019 had used state airplanes to travel to events held by political organizations including the National Rifle Association and the Republican Jewish Coalition, even though South Dakota law bars their use for anything other than state business.

Noem, who faces reelection this year and has positioned herself as a 2024 White House aspirant, called the reports a political attack.

In her daughter’s case, she said she was working to “cut red tape” to solve a shortage of appraisers. She said she was acting as an ambassador for the state in her use of state airplanes.