South Dakota investigation weighs Noem’s use of state plane

SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem was returning from an official appearance in Rapid City in 2019 when she faced a decision: overnight in the capital, Pierre, where another trip would begin the next day , or travel home and see your son attend his high school prom?

The Republican governor chose the latter, a decision that eventually cost taxpayers around $3,700 when the state plane dropped them off near their home and returned the next day to pick them up.

It’s one of several trips this year where Noem, a potential candidate for the 2024 White House, blurred the lines between official travel and attending family or political events. The trips sparked a complaint with state ethics Board that referred the matter to the State Criminal Investigation Department. A district attorney overseeing the investigation will rule on whether the governor violated an unexamined law passed by voters in 2006 to curb questionable use of the state plane.

The governor also faced lawsuits from the same ethics committee for interfering with a state agency shortly after it denied her daughter a real estate appraiser’s license.

As Noem’s political star rose in 2020she began using private jets to fly to fundraisers, campaign rallies and conservative meetings.

But before that, in the first year of her tenure in 2019, Noem used the state plane six times to fly to out-of-state events hosted by political organizations including the Republican Governors Association, Republican Jewish Coalition, Turning Point USA and the National rifle club. raw historyan online news site, first reported on the trips the governor’s office was defending as part of her work as the state’s “ambassador” to strengthen the state’s economy and interstate ties.

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State aircraft logs also show that Noem had accompanied family members on domestic flights in 2019.

The 2006 voting action was in response to the then governor’s review of air traffic. Mike Rounds, who attended events such as his son’s away basketball games while traveling for other official business. At the time, Rounds, now a US Senator, used political funds to reimburse the state for those trips, as well as trips to political events.

State Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat who proposed the voting measure before becoming a legislature, said voters were clear on their intent.

“When it has been used for family members, it appears to be a clear violation not only of the letter but also of the spirit of the law, which passed overwhelmingly,” he said.

Noem campaign spokesman Ian Fury said it was “completely precedent” for family members to join governors on flights, adding that “the level of sophistry is ridiculous because she does less of that than Dennis.” Daugaard”, referring to Noem’s Republican predecessor.

Last semester state plane logs from Daugaard’s showwife Linda often took part in trips. Daugaard’s sister and daughter also took part in a trip in 2017 and 2016. Noem’s children — not counting daughter Kennedy Noem, who served as a policy analyst on the governor’s staff — took nine air trips during their first term.

On another trip, Noem’s travel schedule allowed her to return home for her son’s prom. On April 5, 2019, she took the state plane from Watertown near her home in Castlewood to Rapid City to make 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 journey, and several helpers. But although she had scheduled another trip from Pierre to Las Vegas the next day for a Republican-Jewish Coalition event, Noem did not stay there at the governor’s mansion.

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According to Noem’s social media posts, she flew to Watertown, near her home, in time to see her son take the stage at his prom. The state plane meanwhile returned to Pierre, only to fly back to Watertown for the governor the next day.

Fury defended the trips because her journey began in Watertown, near where she spoke at an event for her son’s school district the day before.

“Part of the business trip is returning from business trips,” Fury said.

He used a similar defense for a May 30, 2019 trip that began in Custer, where she was staying to help her daughter prepare for her wedding, and traveled across 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, went back on the state plane to join in the wedding preparations.

Fury said adding her son and his friends to the flight did not cost the state any extra money and was part of their official trip.

Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law School professor who specializes in government ethics, said Noem’s trips to political events appeared to fall in a legal gray area. While traveling for a fundraiser or campaign would clearly be against the law, he said, traveling to meetings with political groups “has pushed the limits.”

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Across the country, Democratic and Republican governors have come under scrutiny for their use of state aircraft. New York, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Montana allow governors to do some politics with state-owned aircraft, but impose some restrictions and require reimbursements for political purposes. New York also allows immediate family members to travel with the governor.

Hughes County Prosecutor Jessica LaMie, who was assigned to look into whether Noem broke the law, promised a “thorough” investigation.

“If you take the title and all that out of it, it’s no different than any other investigation,” she said.

Neil Fulton, the dean of the law school at the University of South Dakota, who also served as the Rounds’ chief of staff after the passage of the 2006 law, said it’s not entirely clear what exactly the law means by “state affairs.” He said other jurisdictions typically define government business as “actions taken to further programs or initiatives of the government.”

The law provides for hefty fines: $1,000 plus ten times the travel cost. Violators also face a Class 2 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 days imprisonment, but this is usually reserved for repeat or violent offenders only.

“We weren’t hoping to convict anyone of anything,” said Nesiba, the state legislature. “We were hoping to act as a deterrent.”

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