SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) — South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem was returning from an official appearance in Rapid City in 2019 when she had to make a decision: to spend the night in the capital of Pierre, where another trip would start the next day, or go home and see her son attend his high school prom?
The Republican governor chose the latter, a move that ultimately cost taxpayers some $3,700 when the state plane dropped her off near her home and then returned the next day to pick her up.
It was one of many trips that year where Noem, a potential candidate for the White House in 2024, blurred the lines between official travel and attending family or political events. The trips sparked a complaint to the state Ethics Committee, which referred the matter to the state’s Criminal Investigations Division. A county prosecutor overseeing the investigation will decide whether the governor violated an untested law passed by voters in 2006 to curb questionable use of the state plane.
The governor was also sued by the same ethics committee for intervening at a state agency shortly after deciding to deny his daughter a real estate appraiser’s license.
As the Noem political star rose in 2020, she began using private jets to travel to fundraisers, campaign events and conservative rallies.
But before that, during his first year in office in 2019, Noem used the state plane six times to travel to out-of-state events hosted by political organizations, including the Republican Governors Association, the Republican Jewish Coalition, Turning Point USA and the National Riflemen Association. Raw Story, an online news site, first reported on the trips, which the governor’s office has championed as part of her job as the state’s “ambassador” to bolster the economy of the region. state and intergovernmental relations.
Airplane logs from the state also show Noem had family members who joined her on flights into the state in 2019.
The 2006 ballot measure was a response to the government’s scrutiny of air travel at the time. Mike Rounds, who attended events such as his son’s away basketball games while traveling on other official business. At the time, Rounds, now a U.S. senator, used political funds to reimburse the state for those trips, as well as travel to political events.
State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat who proposed the ballot measure before becoming a lawmaker, said voters were clear in their intent.
“When used for family members, it appears to be a clear violation of not only the letter but also the spirit of the law which was overwhelmingly passed,” he said. .
Noem’s campaign spokesman Ian Fury said it was “fully within the rules” for family members to join governors on flights, adding that “the level of fussiness is ridiculous because she does that stuff less than Dennis Daugaard,” referring to Noem’s Republican predecessor. .
The state plane logs of Linda, the wife of Daugaard’s last show, often joined the trips. Daugaard’s sister and daughter also joined one trip each in 2017 and 2016 respectively. Noem’s children — not including his daughter Kennedy Noem, a member of the governor’s staff as a political analyst — went on nine plane trips during his first term.
On another trip, Noem’s itinerary allowed her to return home for her son’s prom. On April 5, 2019, she flew from Watertown State, near her home in Castlewood, to Rapid City for an announcement at Ellsworth Air Force Base. On the return flight, the plane stopped in the capital Pierre to drop off Rounds, who had joined her for the trip, and several helpers. But even though she had another trip from Pierre to Las Vegas for a Republican Jewish Coalition event scheduled for the next day, Noem did not stay at the governor’s mansion there.
She flew to Watertown, near her home, in time to see her son take the stage at his prom, according to Noem’s social media posts. The state plane, meanwhile, returned to Pierre, to make the return trip to Watertown for the governor the following day.
Fury defended the trips because her trip started in Watertown, near where she had spoken at an event for her son’s school district the day before.
“Part of official travel comes from official travel,” Fury said.
He used a similar defense for a May 30, 2019 trip that started in Custer, where she was staying to help her daughter prepare for her wedding, and traveled the state to speak at two youth leadership events. . Noem’s son, nephew and one of their friends who were attending one of these events in Aberdeen returned on the official plane to join in the wedding preparations.
Fury said adding his son and friends to the flight didn’t cost the state extra money and was part of his official trip.
Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law School professor who specializes in government ethics, said Noem’s trips to political events appeared to fall into a legal gray area. While traveling to raise funds or campaign would clearly break the law, he said, traveling to meet with political groups was “pushing the line”.
Across the country, Democratic and Republican governors have come under scrutiny for their use of state planes. New York, Kentucky, Minnesota and Montana allow governors to play politics with state-owned aircraft, but impose certain restrictions and require refunds for political purposes. New York also allows immediate family members to travel with the governor.
Hughes County State’s Attorney Jessica LaMie, who was appointed to determine whether Noem broke the law, promised a “thorough” investigation.
“If you take away the title and all that, it’s no different than any other survey,” she said.
Neil Fulton, the dean of the University of South Dakota Law School who also served as Rounds’ chief of staff after the 2006 law was signed into law, said it was not entirely clear what the law means exactly by “state affairs”. He said other jurisdictions generally define affairs of state as “actions to advance state programs or initiatives.”
The law imposes high fines: $1,000 plus 10 times the cost of the trip. Offenders also face a Class 2 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail, but is generally only reserved for repeat offenders or violent repeat offenders.
“We weren’t expecting to convict anyone of anything,” said Nesiba, the state legislator. “We hoped to have a deterrent effect.”
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