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Ethics board dismisses Gov. Kristi Noem airplane probe, ending two-year saga

The ethics board inquiry regarding potential misuse of state resources — hinging on whether Noem's out-of-state travels in a state airplane were "state business" — has come to a close.

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Noem delivers her budget address in the state capitol building in Pierre on Dec. 6, 2022. Once a potentially major issue in her re-election campaign, two ethics complaints against the governor now appear to be in the rearview.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The winding saga of a South Dakota ethics board’s inquiry into Gov. Kristi Noem’s use of the state airplane has come to a close.

At the Government Accountability Board’s Tuesday, Dec. 20 meeting, the three retired judges leading the ethics board’s investigation into potential misuse of the state plane put the matter to rest, dismissing the complaint as beyond the board’s scope due to a need to define the meaning of “state business” in assessing whether state law was broken.

It is presumably a final decision, barring a scenario in which the state Legislature decides to make clear the definition of “state business” in the statute governing the use of the state airplane.

“The authority for such a definition is the responsibility of the state Legislature. From our research, there is no such statutory definition,” Judge David Gienapp said after the panel emerged from a short executive session.

A fourth judge, retired Chief Justice David Gilbertson, was appointed by Noem and recused himself from any Noem-related actions.

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The inquiry into Noem’s use of the plane has taken several steps to arrive at this finality.

The ethics board referred Complaint 2021-04, which deals with potential misuse of the state airplane, to Attorney General Mark Vargo on Sept. 9, 2022. The board asked the Division of Criminal Investigation to look into whether Noem had violated state law by attending certain out-of-state events using the state plane.

In a news release sent on Oct. 25, Hughes County State’s Attorney Jessica LaMie — put in charge of the investigation after a recusal from Vargo — wrote there were “no facts to support a criminal prosecution under current law” and “no basis to pursue these matters further.

At the ethics board’s Nov. 14 meeting, the first following LaMie’s announcement, the three retired judges dealing with the complaint voted unanimously to subpoena the Division of Criminal Investigation’s documents in order to make their own judgment on the matter, documents the board received and examined prior to the Dec. 20 meeting.

The original complaint alleging that Noem had misused the state airplane was recommended to the Government Accountability Board by former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg .

Those in Noem’s camp have long cast the public nature of Ravnsborg’s referral to the ethics board as political retaliation.

The chronicles of Noem’s several out-of-state travels in the state airplane originally stemmed from a February 2021 article in the online publication Raw Story. These trips, some of them to partisan events such as a Turning Point USA conference in Dallas, were defended as falling under “state business.”

"One of Gov. Noem's primary roles as governor is to be South Dakota's top ambassador to the rest of the nation,” Communications Director Ian Fury told Raw Story in 2021. “She has made this a big part of her governorship, advertising to attract businesses to our state, to drive tourism to our state and to appeal to particular industries.

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The judges' decision means that both ethics complaints against Noem — the state airplane probe, along with an abuse of office charge in helping her daughter attain a real estate appraiser’s license estate appraiser’s license — have reached their conclusions.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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