South Dakota ethics board wants response from Noem by April

FILE - South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks at a news conference in Sioux Falls, Idaho, on Nov. 1, 2021. A South Dakota government accountability board has set an April deadline for Gov. Noem to respond to a pair of ethics complaints. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A South Dakota government accountability board on Thursday set an April deadline for Gov. Kristi Noem to respond to a pair of ethics complaints from the state’s attorney general, signaling it believes the complaints might have merit.

Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, who like Noem is a Republican, asked the board to consider two issues. One is whether Noem’s use of state airplanes broke the law, and the other is whether she improperly interfered with a state agency that was evaluating her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser license.

Noem has insisted she has done nothing wrong.

After meeting for roughly 10 minutes behind closed doors, the Government Accountability Board, which is made up of retired judges, decided to give Noem until April 15 — after the legislative session ends — to respond to the complaints. In December, it requested a response on one of the complaints, but the governor's office asked for more time.

“This is probably not the best time of the year," said retired judge Gene Kean, referring to the governor's busy work schedule.

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson, who was appointed to the board by Noem, has recused himself from considering the complaints.

The board keeps the details of the complaints secret unless it decides they warrant a public hearing. In the past, it has dismissed complaints without requiring the targeted officials to respond to them.

Ravnsborg declined to discuss the specifics of the complaints Thursday, but he explained that the board's process calls for a response from the subject of a complaint before the board decides whether to “dismiss it, move forward with it or seek an investigation.”

If the board finds ethics violations, it can take a wide range of actions, from requesting a criminal investigation to issuing a private reprimand or requiring community service. But in the five years since it was created, the board has never considered taking action against a governor.

“The board has very broad discretion and we're all learning a little bit within the bounds of the statute because they have not had a lot of complaints,” Ravnsborg said. “It's a fairly new board.”

Although Ravnsborg and Noem are both Republicans, they are not allies. The governor has pushed to remove Ravnsborg from office after he struck and killed a pedestrian with his car in 2020.

Noem has faced scrutiny over her involvement in the state's Appraiser Certification Program since The Associated Press reported that Noem called a meeting with her daughter, the labor secretary and the then-director of the certification program, Sherry Bren, just days after the Department of Labor and Regulation moved to deny her daughter’s appraiser license application in 2020.

Bren in December told a legislative committee looking into the episode that she felt intimidated at the meeting, and that afterward, Noem's daughter, Kassidy Peters, received an unprecedented extra opportunity to show her appraiser work could meet federal requirements.

Noem, who is running for reelection and has positioned herself for a 2024 White House bid, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and said she was simply trying to solve a shortage of appraisers in the state.

Noem has also dismissed scrutiny of her state airplane use as a political attack after the news website Raw Story found that used state-owned planes to fly to 2019 events hosted by political organizations such as the National Rifle Association, Turning Point USA and the Republican Jewish Coalition. Noem has cast her trips as part of her work as “an ambassador” for the state.

South Dakota officials are not allowed to use the planes for anything other than state business, and Democratic state Sen. Reynold Nesiba asked the attorney general to investigate.

Noem's spokesman, Ian Fury, said after the board announced its decision that her office “is focused on the work of the legislative session.”