For the first time in its five years of existence, the Government Accountability Board did something other than completely dismiss an ethics complaint against an elected official. But the GAB’s actions yesterday on two ethics complaints against Governor Kristi Noem still do not make clear whether the GAB or anyone else will actually hold Noem accountable for abuses of her office.
Since October 2021, the GAB has had before it two complaints against the Governor: one dealing with her nepotistic intervention in her daughter Kassidy Peters’s struggle to pass the real estate appraiser’s exam, the other with questions about whether Noem misused the state plane and state personnel for her frequent out-of-state political campaign trips.
Yesterday, the GAB said Noem may have “engaged in misconduct” in the real estate appraisal affair, but it did not make clear what action it intends to take:
After meeting in a closed-door session for one hour Monday, the board voted unanimously to invoke procedures that allow for a contested case hearing to give Noem, who has denied wrongdoing, a chance to publicly defend herself against allegations of “misconduct” related to “conflicts of interest” and “malfeasance.” The board also dismissed Ravnsborg’s allegations that Noem misused state funds in the episode.
However, the retired judges left it unclear how they will proceed. Lori Wilbur, the board chair, said the complaint was “partially dismissed and partially closed,” but added that the complaint could be reopened. She declined to discuss what would cause the board to reopen the complaint [Stephen Groves, “Board: SD Gov. Kristi Noem May Have ‘Engaged in Misconduct’,” AP, 2022.08.22].
The GAB did not make any pronouncement on the state plane complaint, but it did refer that complaint to the attorney general for investigation. Things start to sound like farce here: this complaint originated with the previous attorney general, who sat on the complaint from Senator Reynold Nesiba for seven months before punting it to the GAB. The GAB sat on it for nearly eleven months before punting it back to the attorney general—not the original punter, whom we finally impeached and convicted for killing a man, lying about it, and abusing his office, but the new top cop, Mark Vargo, who co-prosecuted the impeached S.O.B. in June and was appointed attorney general a week later by Governor Noem.
Attorney General Vargo assures us his office “will be diligent in our duty and throughly investigate the complaint….”
The original complainant and originator of the 2006 initiated law on state plane use on which the complaint is based, Senator Reynold Nesiba, is understandably frustrated with this opaque runaround:
It shouldn’t take a legislative complaint to the AG, who then sends the investigation to the GAB, to assess whether our elected leaders are appropriately using public resources,” he said.
Nesiba echoed frustrations about the board’s lack of transparency.
“They should be able to have public hearings where they can tell the public what issues are under consideration and investigation,” he said [Annie Todd, “Attorney General’s Office to Investigate Ethics Complaint Against Gov. Kristi Noem,” Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 2022.08.22].
The Governor previously declined to comment on the GAB complaints by claiming that such comment would violate the law. Her campaign tweeter Ian Fury evidently reread the law, realized it does not prohibit subjects of GAB complaints from commenting on GAB inquiries, and let fly last night with shouts of the Governor’s innocence:
Fury’s first rage is correct: the GAB hasn’t cited any statute or given us any other useful public statement on the statutes related to these complaints, the evidence the board has considered, or the reasoning behind its actions on these complaints. That critique only reinforces Senator Nesiba’s critique: the GAB needs to be reformed so that it can conduct public hearings and make clear what it is doing to hold public officials accountable.
Fury’s second rage reinforces the point I made in June when Jason Ravnsborg crawled out from under his impeachment rock at a GAB hearing and called for Noem’s impeachment. Any intervention by Ravnsborg now in these ethics complaints only tee up Fury’s obvious deflection from Noem’s misconduct. Jason—shut up!
Fury’s third rage is false, no matter how many periods and exclamation points he puts on it. The Government Operations and Audit Committee found what was plain to everyone reviewing the facts of her daughter’s case: Kassidy Peters got special treatment in her appraiser certification process.
But amidst Fury’s smoke and the GAB’s fog, it’s hard to tell what accountability Noem will face for her ethical violations.