Governor Kristi Noem’s attempt to buy fired appraiser certification chief Sherry Bren’s silence appears to have prompted at least one government openness bill from legislators. Representative Ernie Otten (R-6/Tea) has filed House Bill 1041, an act to “facilitate legislative oversight of settlement agreements involving a state entity or official.”
Backed by Senate sponsor Art Rusch (R-17/Vermillion), Rep. Otten calls for any settlement involving the state, a state agency, or a state officer or employee in an official capacity be cc’ed in full to the Executive Board of the Legislative Research Council and to the Government Operations and Audit Committee within 30 days of its execution. The state last March settled Sherry Bren’s age-discrimination complaint by paying her $219,151.72, and no one else knew anything about this hush money until Stephen Groves of the Associated Press broke the story of Noem’s nepotistic intervention in the appraisal certification office in September.
Making clear that Noem’s firing of Bren motivates this bill, HB 1041 would also deem null and unenforceable any “nondisparagement” clause or similar provision if it prevents the disclosure of facts about state government activities related to the settlement to the E-Board or to GOAC. Noem’s settlement with Bren imposed a non-disparagement clause that legislators have cited as a barrier to GOAC’s investigation of this nepotism scandal (and which the state has likely breached with assault’s on Brens character). The language of this section of HB 1041 appears to be absolute and thus apply to existing non-disparagement clauses; HB 1041 would thus appear to allow Bren and anyone else whom the administration has similarly gagged to speak freely to the Legislature about their settlements and their work for the state.
Governor Noem threw a hissy fit last Session when arch-conservative outsider Republicans proposed openness legislation targeting her use of state resources for her nationwide campaign travel. How will the Governor respond now to two relatively mainstream Republican legislators propsing legislation to check the Governor’s latest and most prominent abuse of power?