Sherry Bren Felt 'Intimidated' by Gov. Kristi Noem, Kassidy Peters at Meeting Over License

Sherry Bren, former director of South Dakota's Appraiser Certification Program, testified in front of lawmakers Tuesday that she felt "intimidated" by how many high-level government officials were at the July 2020 meeting in Governor Kristi Noem's office over the denial of the application for a real estate appraiser's license for Noem's daughter, Kassidy Peters.

Bren testified that an additional chance to meet federal requirements to obtain the license and a "stipulation agreement" for what Peters had to do in order to get the license were unusual practices for the office she led for 30 years, and the agreement was something she had never done before.

The panel she testified in front of was formed to investigate the meeting and agreement following reporting by the Associated Press in September.

The meeting was called a week after Peters was notified by the program that Bren had directed since its creation in 1991. Peters eventually passed the program and obtained the license, and Bren testified that she was later "forced to retire" from her position over what she called age discrimination.

She said the meeting and agreement continued the trend of Peters' application being handled in an unusual manner, as members of Noem's cabinet had previously become unusually involved in the process.

Bren said she was prepared to meet with Noem and the state's labor secretary at the meeting, and was surprised that Peters was also there to discuss her application, along with other top aides to Noem.

"Once I got there, I was very nervous, and, quite frankly, intimidated," Bren said.

Kristi Noem, South Dakota, Sherry Bren
Sherry Bren, former director of South Dakota's licensing program for real estate appraisers, told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday that she felt Governor Kristi Noem's daughter's application was handled in an unusual manner and she was later "forced to resign" in what she said was age discrimination. Above, Noem speaks in Sioux Falls on October 13, 2020. Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP File

Bren's testimony was the first time that she has spoken in depth in public about Peters' application and about a meeting that her mother called last year to discuss the appraisal process.

The panel's inquiry into the state's Appraiser Certification Program comes as Noem has positioned herself as a prospect for the GOP presidential ticket in 2024 and shown a willingness to jab at potential rivals.

Noem has denied wrongdoing, casting her actions as an effort to cut red tape to address a shortage of appraisers certified by the state. Noem also has insisted the agreement was not even broached at the July meeting and said her daughter had only given "her personal experiences through the program."

"There's been a continual narrative that I did something to help her get licensed, which is absolutely false," Noem said at an event Monday.

She said Noem began the meeting by saying she knew that South Dakota is the hardest state to be licensed as an appraiser and she intended "to get to the bottom of that." Most requirements to be certified as an appraiser are set at the federal level, but Bren said that some state standards went beyond that minimum.

As Bren testified, the governor's office continued to cast the stipulation agreement as proof that Noem had not sought special treatment for her daughter. Ian Fury, the governor's spokesman, posted on Twitter to say that the agreement showed that Peters had to meet additional requirements to get her license.

Fury also pointed out that the department had previously entered into a "stipulation agreement," but Bren said her agency had never initiated one and the previous "stipulation agreement" was reached in a separate process from a license upgrade.

In another departure from normal procedure, Peters said Secretary of Labor Marcia Hultman had pushed in the spring for Bren to strike a requirement that Peters take additional appraiser classes. Bren said she could not remember a cabinet secretary ever getting involved in that process.

Hultman previously told the committee that Peters' application was handled in the same way as many other applicants. Although she acknowledged it was uncommon to have an applicant like Peters in a meeting with top administration officials, Hultman said last year's meeting in the governor's mansion did not influence how the department handled Peters' application because regulators had already set up a plan to let her fix shortcomings and try again.

But Bren told lawmakers that at the meeting, "I recall the discussion focused on crafting a second agreement, requiring Peters to complete the classes. Peters agreed to complete the classes, correct and rewrite the appraisal reports and submit them for review to the examiner."

The agreement was signed more than a week after the meeting.

Bren's appearance Tuesday was compelled by subpoena. She was pressed to retire after Peters got her license in November of 2020, filed an age discrimination lawsuit and accepted a $200,000 settlement that bars her from disparaging state officials.

Bren testified that she was "forced to retire." Asked later to say why, she said: "I believe that it was age discrimination and beyond that would be strictly speculation on my part."

Several lawmakers said they would like to see the state remove the non-disparagement clause from Bren's agreement because it would let them get an understanding of why Bren was pressured to retire.

"This is a question about, was a longtime, dedicated employee, was she wrongfully fired? Was she wrongfully fired on behalf of a relative of the governor? And did the state end up paying $217,000 to cover that up?" said state Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat. "And we're not going to know the answer to that question because of this non-disparagement clause."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kristi Noem, South Dakota, Sherry Bren
Sherry Bren, former director of South Dakota's licensing program for real estate appraisers, told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday that she felt Governor Kristi Noem's daughter's application was handled in an unusual manner. Above, Noem speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hilton Anatole on July 11, 2021, in Dallas, Texas. Brandon Bell/Getty Images