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Noem-appointed attorney general recuses himself from state airplane probe

On Aug. 22, a state ethics board referred a complaint to the Division of Criminal Investigations for an investigation into whether Gov. Kristi Noem had misused the state airplane. Shortly thereafter, calls began coming in for Mark Vargo, the Noem-appointed interim attorney general, to recuse himself from the investigation. On Sept. 9, Vargo obliged.

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Prosecutor Mark Vargo presents an opening argument during the Ravnborg impeachment trial on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In an effort to “avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” South Dakota Attorney General Mark Vargo has recused himself from the forthcoming investigation by the state Division of Criminal Investigation into Gov. Kristi Noem’s use of a state airplane.

Jessica LaMie, the state’s attorney in Hughes County, will oversee the investigation, according to a press release from the attorney general’s office on Friday, Sept. 9. Vargo's office “will have no further comment and will not release any reports or evidence concerning the complaint until the investigation is complete," according to the statement.

On Aug. 22, the Government Accountability Board referred a complaint regarding misuse of the state airplane by Noem to the attorney general’s office, saying the office could “take action if deemed appropriate.”

Soon after, a small group of lawmakers including Rep. Jamie Smith, D-Sioux Falls and the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and current House Speaker Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham, called on Vargo to recuse himself and “allow for an impartial investigation into the allegations.”

Noem appointed Vargo as interim attorney general in June after the former officeholder, Jason Ravnsborg, was removed from his position by the Senate after being impeached for his behavior during and after striking and killing a man with his car in 2020.

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Questions surrounding Noem’s use of the state airplane for matters outside official state business were first raised by an article published by RawStory in February 2021. The state law regulating use of the state airplane, which was extended to cover the governor after a successful ballot measure in 2006, offers no exceptions to this rule.

A full accounting of Noem’s use of the state airplane was published by KELO earlier this week.

Ian Fury, the communications director for the Noem campaign, maintains that the governor never used the state airplane improperly. For example, regarding a trip on the state airplane to an NRA Women’s Leadership Summit in San Antonio in September 2019, Fury told RawStory that Noem “has worked to attract Americans who respect freedom – including our Second Amendment freedoms – to move to South Dakota. As such, this meeting is official business.”

Fury also pointed out that Noem has used the state airplane considerably less than her predecessors, writing to Forum News Service that “Gov. [Dennis] Daugaard was a passenger on the plane 60 times a year on average” while Noem “has been a passenger only 34.5 times per year.”

One of the people behind the initiated state statute regulating airplane use, Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, took issue with the Noem campaign’s interpretation of what constitutes state business.

“My sense is that Gov. Rounds and Gov. Daugaard took that measure seriously, and they went out of their way to avoid any appearance of impropriety or anything approaching a misuse of our state airplane. And that changed under the Noem administration,” Nesiba told Forum News Service. “She's taken this really forceful position that she's always an ambassador for the state so that everything she does is state business.”

MORE BY JASON HARWARD
On Nov. 8, South Dakotans rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana in the state among anyone 21 years and over. Now, the more than 100 businesses clamoring for a piece of this industry will have to attempt to sustain themselves on a few thousand medical patients.

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.

Related Topics: KRISTI NOEMJASON RAVNSBORG
Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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