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South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem tried to avoid ethics hearing and seal records, according to newly released documents

By Mahesh Limbani Sep 9, 2022

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem asked a state ethics board to dismiss a complaint against her without a public hearing and to seal off certain records, documents released Friday by the state’s Government Accountability Board show.

The Republican governor, who is widely seen as eyeing a 2024 White House bid, argued in an April motion that the state’s attorney general, a fellow Republican who filed the complaint, was out for political retribution and should be removed from the complaint. Noem had pushed former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to resign and later for his impeachment over his involvement in a fatal car crash.

The attorney general’s complaint was sparked by a report from The Associated Press last year that Noem had taken a hands-on role in a state agency. Shortly after the agency moved to deny her daughter, Kassidy Peters, a real estate appraiser license in July of 2020, Noem held a meeting with Peters and key decision-makers in her licensure. Days after the meeting, Peters signed an agreement that gave her another opportunity to meet the licensing requirements.

The South Dakota Legislature’s audit committee, controlled by Republicans, unanimously approved a report in May that found Noem’s daughter got preferential treatment.

The records released Friday provided some new insight into an inquiry that the Government Accountability Board has conducted mostly in secret for nearly a year. The three retired judges who evaluated the ethics complaint unanimously found last month that there was enough evidence for them to believe that Noem “engaged in misconduct” by committing malfeasance and a conflict of interest.

The board has said “appropriate action” would be taken against Noem, though it didn’t specify the action. It’s also not clear whether Noem will request a contested case hearing before the board to publicly defend herself against the allegations.

Neither her office nor her campaign said Friday whether she will proceed to a public hearing. She has continued to publicly insist that she did nothing wrong.

The records show that Noem, in a 29-page motion to the board, launched a range of arguments for dismissing the complaint. Her attorney, Lisa Prostrollo, mocked Ravnsborg’s allegations as “nonsensical,” a “political attack” and based on “far-fetched conspiracy theories.”

The motion argues Noem’s daughter joined the July 2020 meeting to provide her perspective as an applicant and attempts to defend how that was appropriate while she was facing a denial of her license. Government ethics experts have said the timing and circumstances of the meeting created a clear conflict of interest for the governor.

Noem’s attorney argued that the Government Accountability Board did not have the constitutional power to act against the governor or evaluate the complaint against her. And the lawyer suggested that Ravnsborg, who had been forced from office, be removed from the complaint and replaced with the deputy attorney general who was overseeing the office at the time.

The board in August denied Noem’s motion. However, it did appear to later pay some heed to Noem’s requests. It dismissed two of Ravnsborg’s allegations that she misused public funds, and sealed off certain records from being released.

Ravnbsorg suggested that the board launch a full investigation into the episode by hiring a Minneapolis law firm. However, the board appears ready to settle the matter. It closed the complaint and has so far kept it a secret what “action” it may take against the governor, though it has suggested the complaint could be reopened later.

The secrecy of the board’s potential action against the governor has prompted some criticism from government ethics experts who say the board should be transparent.

“I would hope that they would make public their plan of action as soon as possible,” Karen Soli, a former Democratic state lawmaker who helped create the board, told the AP last month.

Noem also made a motion to strike certain documents from the record, but it is not clear what those records were because the board did not release that motion. The board’s attorney, Mark Haigh, said the motion was not released because it contained the list of redacted records.

The board previously voted to redact records that “contain privileged information” related to a state fund for paying litigation. The agency’s former director, Sherry Bren, received a $200,000 payment from the fund to settle an age discrimination complaint she filed after Labor Secretary Marcia Hultman pressured her to retire in December of 2020.

Meanwhile, the board has sent a separate complaint to Mark Vargo, the attorney general who Noem appointed to replace Ravnsborg, to investigate her use of state airplanes. Ravnsborg alleged that her use of the state-owned plane to fly to political events and escort family members around the state violated a state law that only allows the aircraft to be used for state business.

Vargo’s office said Friday that, “to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” he has requested Hughes County State’s Attorney Jessica LaMie to oversee the Division of Criminal Investigation’s work and make any charging decisions.

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