South Dakota Lawmakers Seek Subpoenas in Developing Ethics Probe of Gov. Kristi Noem

On Monday, South Dakota lawmakers moved to subpoena a document and a former state employee at the center of questions about if Gov. Kristi Noem used her influence to help her daughter's application for a real estate appraiser license.

The Legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee is looking for details about a meeting at the governor's mansion called by Noem with her daughter Kassidy Peters and key decision-makers in a government agency that had moved days earlier to deny Peters' application for an upgrade to her appraiser certification.

The Associated Press reported the Republican governor has denied any wrongdoing. She has also positioned herself for a 2024 White House bid. However, the subpoenas cleared the GOP-dominated committee Monday on 8-to-2 votes. This shows lawmakers want more answers on a situation that has garnered criticism from government ethics experts.

Final approval for the subpoenas comes from a ranking legislative committee, the Executive Board, which meets Wednesday. Until then, the subpoenas are not finalized.

The Government Operations and Audit Committee can examine government records, but Noem's administration has denied access to a document that could prove if a plan was in place to give Peters another opportunity to win a real estate appraiser license before the meeting last year. The Department of Labor and Regulation said the administrative procedure restricts them from releasing documents that are derogatory to people.

Secretary of Labor Marcia Hultman took part in last year's meeting in the governor's mansions. She told lawmakers the majority of it was a policy discussion and didn't impact Peters' application process due to state regulators already forming an agreement with Peters to fix issues with her application. Noem corroborated Hultman's account but said her daughter was not a topic in the meeting.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Kristi Noem, Subpoena, Ethics
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks on July 16, 2021, in Des Moines, Iowa. South Dakota lawmakers are pressing Gov. Noem’s administration to hand over a document that could prove whether there was a plan 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. Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo, File

"I believe a key piece of the issue is the timing of the agreement between the Appraiser Certification Program and Kassidy Peters," said Republican Sen. David Wheeler. "Secretary Hultman said an agreement has already been made before the meeting at the residence. I simply want to confirm that."

Lawmakers also want to hear from the former director of the program, Sherry Bren. She was called into the July 2020 meeting and was later pressured to retire shortly after Peters received her license that November.

Bren filed an age discrimination complaint and received a $200,000 payment from the state to withdraw the complaint and leave her job this year. Noem has said the settlement had nothing to do with her daughter.

The committee had requested Bren's presence last month, but she declined. Part of her settlement with the state bars her from disparaging state officials. However, Bren told The Associated Press that she would work with lawmakers to "correct any factual inaccuracies" in Hultman's testimony to the committee and indicated to lawmakers that she would like to receive a subpoena to appear before them in person.

Republican lawmakers spoke with caution as they inquired into an episode that has drawn open derision from Noem. She has repeatedly berated The AP for first reporting on the meeting with her daughter.

But Wheeler insisted the committee was acting within its role of checking up on the operations of state government, adding that "it is appropriate to clear the air on what actually happened."

Other Republicans said they would rather wait to see if the Government Accountability Board, a separate ethics committee of four retired judges, takes up the issue. The state's Republican attorney general has asked it to take a look at the episode, but it is unclear if that board will take it up.

Republican Sen. Wayne Steinhauer suggested a defense for the governor as he voted against both subpoenas.

"If you've got somebody that's got ... actual experience working with the program, involving them in a meeting seems to be appropriate," he said. "Optics — when it's a family member — politically maybe aren't the best, but I just got to try and figure out where we're headed with this."

Kristi Noem, Subpoena, Ethics
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC held at the Hilton Anatole on July 11, 2021 in Dallas, Texas. Noem is facing the start of an ethics probe as South Dakota lawmakers seek subpoenas on a document and a former state employee regarding if Norm used her influence to her daughter's application for a real estate appraiser license. Brandon Bell/Getty Images