SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers moved Monday to subpoena a document and a former state employee at the center of questions about whether Gov. Kristi Noem used her influence to aid her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser license.
The Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee is pressing for details about a meeting the governor called last year that included 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 Republican governor, who has positioned herself for a 2024 White House bid, has adamantly denied any wrongdoing. But the subpoenas, which both cleared the GOP-dominated committee Monday on eight-to-two votes, show lawmakers want more answers on an episode that has drawn criticism from government ethics experts.
The subpoenas, however, are not finalized. They must also be approved by a ranking legislative committee, the Executive Board, which meets Wednesday.
The Government Operations and Audit Committee has the ability to examine government records, but Noem’s administration had refused to hand over a document that could prove whether a plan was in place to give Peters another chance to win a real estate appraiser license before last year’s meeting. The Department of Labor and Regulation has argued that administrative procedure bars them from divulging documents that are derogatory to people.
Secretary of Labor Marcia Hultman, who was part of last year’s meeting in the governor’s mansion, has told lawmakers that it was mostly a policy discussion and it didn’t impact Peters’ application process because state regulators had already formed an agreement with Peters to fix issues with her application. Noem has backed up that account, although the governor contended that the agreement with her daughter was not even broached during the meeting.
“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.”