Judges meet on allegations against South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem

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Gov. Kristi Noem’s use of state-owned airplanes, and allegations she abused her power to benefit of one of her children’s professional careers, are under the microscope again this week in South Dakota.

But a panel of retired judges, who met for an hour behind closed doors Monday morning in Sioux Falls, wants more information about the allegations before charting a path forward.

Without any public discussion, the four-member Government Accountability Board came out of the executive session and formally voted to send two of the three complaints it considered Monday back to the complainant to obtain more details about the allegations. 

More: Nepotism probe into Gov. Noem, South Dakota labor office leaves questions unanswered

Former Chief Justice David Gilbertson, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Noem, abstained from voting on the motion to remand the complaints. He did, however, vote to dismiss a third complaint heard by the board Monday morning.

None of the retired judges serving on the board shared any additional insight into the complaints and the subject matter in them.

“That’s the tricky part,” said Justice Lori Wilbur, the retired Supreme Court justice who chairs the Government Accountability Board. “They’re all confidential unless we get to a contested case decision, and obviously the one we dismissed did not reach that stage, so they stay confidential.” 

While details from the board are scarce, at least two of the complaints heard Monday morning were formally referred to it by the South Dakota attorney general and are connected to claims that Noem used state-owned airplanes for personal and political uses and that she used her office to pressure the executive director of the South Dakota Appraiser Certification Program to grant Noem’s daughter an appraisers license.

Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, in a letter sent to the board along with the complaint regarding the governor’s airplane use, noted state law prohibits the use of state-owned aircraft for purposes other than state business, and that law applies to the governor as well.

But state flight logs show in 2019, Noem flew in state planes to events hosted by political organizations like the National Rifle Association, Turning Point USA and the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Noem has defended her travel to those events as part of her role as an “ambassador for the state” and that her plane use has been in line with the law.

Days after that Ravnsborg referred that complaint to the board, he sent another dealing with allegations of nepotism to the Government Accountability Board. That complaint alleges the woman who oversaw the state appraiser program was summoned to a closed-door meeting at the Governor’s Mansion with Noem, her daughter and other members of her cabinet and legal counsel when Noem’s daughter was in jeopardy of graduating the program.

Last week, Labor Secretary Marcia Hultman admitted to a panel of lawmakers the meeting did take place and that Kassidy Peters, the governor’s daughter, was present. But she denied it was held to pressure the program’s executive director, Sherry Bren, to certify Peters’ appraisers license.

Bren, who declined to testify before the Government Audit and Operations Committee, said in a statement provided to the Associated Press following Hultman’s testimony that she was working with her attorney to correct “any factual inaccuracies” provided to the committee.

Like the Government Accountability Board, the Legislative oversight committee is seeking more information related to the accusations and is expected to revisit the allegations at a later meeting.

If the retired judges determine state laws were violated, a criminal investigation can be requested.

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