Rep. Noem under scrutiny for witnessesThose testifying at hearings are also campaign donors; ethical questions have been raised.
By: HENRY C. JACKSON , The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Twice in the last four months, Republican Rep. Kristi Noem has held or testified at congressional hearings in South Dakota and Washington where the tables were packed with witnesses who between themselves, their employees and their families have given her a total of more than $19,000 in campaign contributions.
Noem is the lone U.S. House member from South Dakota, with $790,224 in her campaign account. The congressional hearings focused on farm dust regulation and pine beetles, both critical issues to her constituents.
In a July hearing for the House subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands in Hill City, on a mountain pine beetle epidemic in the Black Hills, two of three nongovernment witnesses each gave $1,000 or more to her congressional campaign account. The other three witnesses worked for the U.S. Forest Service or the state agriculture department.
Earlier this month, two of seven non-government witnesses at a hearing on farm dust were associated with a total of $9,000 in campaign contributions, either by themselves, the lobbying group they represented at the hearing, or through their family and employees.
Congressional rules don’t ban campaign contributors from testifying at congressional hearings. Often, as is the case with Noem, the witnesses were approved by congressional staff and can offer a relevant perspective.
But watchdog groups say a close relationship between members of Congress and witnesses at congressional hearings can raise ethical questions.
“I think this shows the relationship between members of Congress and their contributors,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan group that focuses on government transparency. “I’m sure there were people with no connection to Rep. Noem who could have testified.”
Noem’s office said the campaign donations of the witnesses who appeared had nothing to do with the invitation from her to testify. Joshua Shields, a spokesman for Noem, said drawing a line between donations and the testimony amounted to “cheap political distractions.”
“Rep. Noem is extremely proud of her work on behalf of South Dakota when it comes to fighting the pine beetle epidemic and stopping further EPA dust regulation,” Shields said in a statement. “These are issues she has focused on because they are critically important to the economic future of our state and not for any other reason.”
Elected to Congress in 2010, Noem defeated Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in a close race. But Noem has more clout than the average freshman: She is one of two freshmen representatives in the GOP House leadership, working as a conduit between 2010’s unusually large Republican freshman class and the top rungs of leadership like Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
One witness in the July pine beetle hearing, James Scherrer, testified in his capacity as an owner of more than 165 acres surrounded by the Black Hills Forest. He’s donated $2,500 to Noem’s campaign and his wife, Sally Scherrer, gave $1,600. Employees of a business Scherrer owns and operates, Black Hills Orthopedics and Spine Center, also gave $5,000 to Noem’s account.
At the same hearing another witness, Jim Neiman, testified in his capacity as the owner of Neiman Enterprises, Inc., a lumber manufacturer. Five months prior to speaking, Neiman gave $1,000 to Noem’s campaign account.
According to Noem’s office both witnesses were invited by Noem’s congressional staff. Political support does not factor into legislative staff ’s work, her office said.
At another committee hearing earlier this month, Noem testified to support legislation she has introduced that would limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate farm dust. She was joined at the hearing by Pete Lien, who has given $1,000 to her campaign committee.
Lien, the owner of Lien & Sons, Inc. a South Dakotabased mining company, spoke on behalf of the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. In addition to his own donations, Lien’s family and employees gave Noem’s campaign an additional $6,000 in donations.
At the same hearing, another witness, Steve Foglesong, testified on behalf of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. That group has donated $2,000 to Noem’s campaign. Lien and Foglesong were chosen as witnesses by staff for the House’s energy and commerce committee, a committee on which Noem doesn’t have a seat.
Noem is not the only member of Congress to see her campaign donors testify to Congress at hearings she’s organized or participated in. In May, Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., came under scrutiny when three witnesses testifying to a field hearing on transportation in his district turned out to be donors. Lankford’s spokesman, Will Allison, said at the time that the witnesses were selected for their expertise in their field.
Such occurrences are common enough on both sides of the aisle that they present a perception problem, Allison said.
“This is why we keep saying money and politics is a problem,” he said.