SD Gov. Kristi Noem weighs response to ethics complaints

SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) — A South Dakota ethics board’s finding that Gov. Kristi Noem may have engaged in misconduct by interfering with her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser’s license likely isn’t the final word on the matter. But how much more comes out in the episode may depend on the Republican governor herself.

The state’s Government Accountability Board appears to be leaving it to Noem to decide whether to defend herself at a public hearing or simply accept an “appropriate action” that the board has not specified. He presents Noem with a choice: stick to her defense that she has done nothing wrong and fight the allegations in a public hearing, or let the matter die quietly while she accepts the board’s action.

How Noem handles the issue may not hurt her re-election prospects this year in a race where she is heavily favored to win a second term. But it could be important down the road for a policy that has been methodically positioned to rise in national politics, including a possible 2024 presidential run.

So far, Noem has chosen to fight — at least in the public sphere. Her re-election campaign spokesman Ian Fury attacked the board after the move against her on Monday, calling the board’s action “illegal” and portraying the allegations against her as the work of a bitter political enemy. They were filed last year by Jason Ravnsborg, the former Republican attorney general, as he faced pressure from Noem to resign after he struck and killed a pedestrian with his car in 2020.

But neither her office nor her campaign have responded to questions about whether she will fight the allegations through a contested hearing before the board, which was created in 2017 and has never handled a case like Noem’s. Such a process would allow the board’s three retired judges to publicly examine how she practically assumed a role in a government agency while evaluating her daughter’s application for an appraiser’s license.

As first reported by The Associated Press, Noem held a meeting in July 2020 that included her daughter, Kassidy Peters, and key decision makers in Peters’ licensing, days after the agency had moved to deny the license. After the meeting, Peters had another chance to prove she could meet federal standards and was eventually granted her license.

By accepting the board’s action, Noem could avoid a public hearing over an episode that has drawn condemnation from government ethics experts, her political opponents and even some Republican lawmakers. Ravensburg said it was lawmakers’ concern that prompted him to send the complaint to the board.

“We’ll have to wait until the governor’s office makes a decision,” said Gene Keane, who was appointed to the Government Accountability Board after serving more than two decades as a state court judge and chairing the state judges association. “That’s kind of the linchpin in this thing.”

But dropping out of the race could also have political consequences for Noem, said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who previously worked as communications director for Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“If it doesn’t have a good explanation or it can’t be rotated, it could be something that’s following her,” Conant said.

The council has not publicly stated what action it may take against the governor. His options in state law allow for a reprimand, a directive to provide community service or classes, and other “informal” resolutions that the governor would have to agree to. The statutes do not describe what the community service or “course” may be.

John Pelissero, a scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said it is “unusual” for an ethics board not to publicly announce the action it takes against an accused official.

“There is no transparency if they don’t announce the level of accountability,” he said. “This has the potential to undermine public confidence in the accountability board and state government in general.”

Meanwhile, the ethics board took another action on Monday that has the potential to find not just ethical misconduct, but illegality. The board asked the state attorney general to investigate Noem’s practice of flying state planes to rallies hosted by political groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Rifle Association. State law prohibits the aircraft from being used for anything other than government business, although Noem said she was acting as an ambassador for the state.

Noem’s gubernatorial challenger, Democratic state Rep. Jamie Smith, attacked the issue Tuesday and called on Attorney General Mark Vargo to resign and appoint a special prosecutor.

Vargo played a prominent role in the conflict between Noem and Ravnsborg earlier this year, leading the impeachment trial against Ravnsborg in the Senate for his actions and recording the 2020 crash that killed a pedestrian. After senators impeached Ravensburg on charges including one alleging he misled investigators and removed him from office, Noem — who had pushed for impeachment — named Vargo as interim attorney general.

Vargo said this week that he had not made a decision on whether to recuse himself from the investigation into the government planes, although he issued a statement saying any investigation would remain confidential.

Pelissero, the ethics expert, agreed, saying there was already a perception of a clear conflict of interest. And David Cleveland, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who specializes in legal ethics, cited rules of professional conduct that bar lawyers from cases where they have a conflict of interest or personal gain.

Even some Republican lawmakers said Vargo should resign.

“I personally think it’s only appropriate for him to resign immediately and appoint a special counsel,” said Republican Rep. Scott Odenback. “So that there is continued faith and trust in the process that you will be held accountable regardless of who you are.”

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