SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers are pressing Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration to hand over a document that could prove whether a plan was in place to give her daughter another chance to win a real estate appraiser license prior to a meeting last year that has spurred conflict-of-interest questions.
The Legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee is readying to initiate a subpoena Monday if the Department of Labor and Regulation doesn't hand over a signed agreement between the governor’s daughter, Kassidy Peters, and state regulators. Peters won her appraiser certification after a state agency moved to deny it last year. Noem’s labor secretary has said the agreement was a road map for how Peters could improve her work.
Two lawmakers on the committee — Republican Rep. Randy Gross and Democrat Rep. Linda Duba — said the committee was ready to issue the subpoena. However, any subpoena would also require approval from the Executive Board, a ranking committee of top legislators that will meet later next week.
The timing of when the agreement was put into place has become a key question for lawmakers as they look into an episode that has prompted ethics experts to say Noem appeared to abuse the powers of her office. The Associated Press first reported that just days after a state agency moved to deny Peters application to upgrade her appraiser certification last year, Noem held a meeting with Peters and state employees overseeing her application. Four months later, Peters received her license.
Noem has defended her actions, telling the AP last week that the agreement was already in place before the meeting and that it was not discussed at the meeting. The Republican governor, who has positioned herself for a 2024 White House bid, has cast the meeting as part of a long-standing effort to solve a shortage of appraisers in the state.
Secretary of Labor Marcia Hultman, who was also at the meeting in the governor's mansion last year, gave a similar account when questioned by lawmakers in October, although she said the agreement was briefly discussed at the end of the meeting.
After hearing from Hultman, lawmakers moved to request the agreement from her department to confirm the sequence of the agreement being implemented and the meeting. They also agreed to keep any documents confidential to the committee.
The Department of Labor and Regulation did not immediately respond to a question from the AP about whether it would fulfill the request from lawmakers.
Noem has indicated she is loath to turn it over.
“When you make a decision and open something up, it sets precedent,” she said at a news conference last week after being asked if she would release the documents. “That’s why for consistency and to make sure that I’m being fair — because that’s exactly what I’m focused on — I would have to set that same precedent for everybody."
While the agreements themselves state they are open to public inspection, the Department of Labor and Regulation denied a request from the AP for them, citing an exemption that allows the government to keep records secret if they deal with examinations. An appeals office later ruled that the department was right to deny the records request.
Lawmakers may also subpoena the former director of the Appraiser Certification Program, Sherry Bren. She was pressured to retire late last year by Hultman, shortly after Peters received her license. Bren filed an age discrimination complaint and received a $200,000 payment from the state to withdraw the complaint and leave her job.
The committee this week sent a letter to Bren with 24 questions on the episode, but on Friday lawmakers released a letter from her lawyer, Tim Rensch, stating that she would prefer to receive a subpoena and testify in person.
Noem has said the settlement had nothing to do with her daughter.
The committee had requested that Bren appear before them last month, but she declined. Part of her settlement with the state bars her from disparaging state officials. However, Bren told the AP that she would work with lawmakers to “correct any factual inaccuracies” in Hultman's testimony to the committee.
Republican Rep. Chriss Karr, one of the lawmakers on the committee, said, “We’re just trying to sort through it and see what is accurate, what is true and what is misinformation so we get the facts."
Stephen Groves, The Associated Press