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Controversy follows Noem in South Dakota as she eyes national stage

<i>Joe Raedle/Getty Images</i><br/>
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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

By Maeve Reston, Lucy Kafanov and Jason Kravarik, CNN

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has emerged as a lightning rod within the field of potential GOP presidential contenders, serving as such a forceful champion for former President Donald Trump that she’s been talked about as a possible running mate if he vies for the White House again in 2024.

But back home, in a state where the governor won her post by promising transparency and accountability in government, her ambitions have been clouded by the controversy over a July 2020 meeting that she held with members of her staff, her daughter — who was applying to become a state-certified real estate appraiser at the time — and top state officials who oversaw that program.

Noem contends she never sought “special treatment” from the state and that her daughter Kassidy Noem Peters was certified in November 2020 after completing the same process as every other applicant. But lawmakers, even those from her own party, want answers about what occurred during the meeting and why her daughter was present.

“When it directly affected the outcome of a license issue for her daughter, it certainly raises questions — and the important thing is the governor campaigned on transparency,” said South Dakota state Rep. Steven Haugaard, a Republican who is a former speaker of the House. Haugaard said both constituents and appraisers working in that field want to know whether Noem’s daughter was given “preferential treatment” and why she was involved in the meeting.

“Those are questions that need to be answered,” he said. “Then the public would be satisfied, and we can move on to something else. … I would like to see a transparent process just like everything in state government should be.”

For some South Dakota voters, the controversy recalls earlier disquiet over Noem’s decision to hire her daughter Kennedy Noem in 2018 as a policy analyst as Kennedy was graduating from college. Hiring family members is legal in South Dakota and Noem announced the position in a press release. Noem, who has drawn the most notice over the past two years for her hands-off approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, has dismissed the new criticisms as attacks on her children from her opponents and the media.

South Dakota is a heavily Republican state where Trump won in 2020 with a 26-point margin. But Noem, a former congresswoman who won the 2018 gubernatorial race by about 3 points, is now facing two potential investigations into her conduct as state lawmakers from both parties cite concerns about the optics of the meeting involving her daughter.

On Wednesday, South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, a Republican who’s a Noem political foe, said in a statement that he is asking the state’s Government Accountability Board to look into the circumstances of Noem’s meeting at the time her daughter’s application was under review. The Government Accountability Board, created in 2017, comprises four former or retired judges who are tasked with reviewing and investigating allegations of misconduct by state officeholders or employees of the executive branch. Members are appointed by the governor.

The board makes an initial determination about whether an investigation is warranted and has the power to issue subpoenas as it gathers evidence. It can refer its findings to the Division of Criminal Investigation and if that division has reason to believe a law has been broken, the division can refer the matter to a state’s attorney or the attorney general for prosecution.

Separately, at the Statehouse the joint Government Operations and Audit Committee, which oversees bills related to legislative auditing of state and local government agencies in South Dakota, will discuss the matter at its October 27-28 meeting.

The governor said in a video last week that she has long believed the process for becoming a state-certified real estate appraiser is too onerous and she has been working to “eliminate barriers to licensure.” She described that system as broken and noted that the person in charge of the appraisal certification process had been in that role for 40 years.

Sherry Bren, the former executive director of the South Dakota Appraiser Certification Program, was called to the July 2020 meeting with Noem, along with Noem’s daughter and other top state officials. Bren says she was forced to retire several months later “at the behest of the Administration,” as first reported by The Associated Press. She filed an age discrimination complaint last December and received a $200,000 settlement agreement.

CNN is unable to verify what happened in the July 2020 meeting. Bren would not comment on what had been discussed or on Kassidy Noem Peters’ application to become a real estate appraiser. The Associated Press reported that Peters was facing a denial of her certification to become a real estate appraiser when the July 2020 meeting took place. State officials told CNN there was no denial of Peters’ application.

While the governor has made it clear that she had long-standing concerns with the certification process, David Golemboski, assistant professor of government and international affairs at Augustana University in South Dakota, said Noem had a “significant conflict of interest” at the time of the meeting given that her daughter’s application was under review by state officials.

“It raises concerns, of course, that what was underway was an attempt to influence her subordinates in order to benefit her family member, which would be a real abuse of power, a real misuse of her office,” Golemboski said.

“Meeting with her daughter and these other members of her administration — with the chief of staff, the general counsel, the secretary of labor — that suggests that this was not a meeting simply to provide parental counseling and guidance,” Golemboski said, “but rather engaging somehow with the instruments of government that conduct the certification process.”

In an interview in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakotan Charles Drevecky said the incident signaled to him that Noem “doesn’t respect openness and transparency.”

“I feel like her daughter just shouldn’t have been in there at all,” Drevecky said. “It almost felt like there were some arms being pulled during the whole thing to get her that license.”

But opinions are divided over the propriety of Noem’s actions as many wait for more information to emerge about what happened in the meeting.

“In South Dakota, it’s a family first-type thing, so I think any father or mother would probably try and do something to help her daughter,” said South Dakotan Mike Shaft. He said he doesn’t think anything he’s heard thus far rises to the level of needing an investigation but that “the optics weren’t great” for Noem.

“In hindsight, she probably shouldn’t have had her daughter present in the meeting,” said Steve Rath in an interview in Sioux Falls. “But it doesn’t really bother me that much. I think in the whole scheme of things — in terms of politicians — it’s a pretty minor offense compared to a lot of other things that have gone on.”

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