Ethics board dismisses Noem plane case, says law is unclear

Dec 19, 2022, 11:25 PM | Updated: Dec 20, 2022, 1:32 pm
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem delivers her budget address for the fiscal year 2024 on Tuesday, Dec....

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem delivers her budget address for the fiscal year 2024 on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in the House Chambers at the State Capitol in Pierre, S.D. (Matt Gade/Rapid City Journal via AP)

(Matt Gade/Rapid City Journal via AP)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota’s ethics board on Tuesday dismissed a complaint against Gov. Kristi Noem for using state government aircraft to attend events hosted by political organizations because state law does not define what is meant by “state business.”

The three retired judges on the Government Accountability Board evaluating the complaint met for roughly 30 minutes in a closed-door meeting after they received the results of a Division of Criminal Investigation probe into trips the Republican governor took in 2019. They then unanimously voted to dismiss the complaint.

Former Judge David Gienapp, one of the board members, said “there may or may not have been actions contrary” to the state law that bars government aircraft from being used only while conducting “state business,” but the law doesn’t contain a definition of what that is.

“It is not felt that the board has authority to establish a definition of state business,” he added and suggested that was the purview of the Legislature.

Noem, a potential 2024 White House contender, had used the state plane six times in 2019 to fly to out-of-state events hosted by political organizations, including the Republican Governors Association, Republican Jewish Coalition, Turning Point USA and the National Rifle Association. Raw Story, an online news site, first reported the trips, which the governor’s office defended as part of her work as the state’s “ambassador” to bolster the state’s economy.

Noem that year had also blurred the lines between official travel and attending family events. Family members joined her on several trips, but her office has said that was keeping in line with a precedent set by former governors.

Noem’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the board’s ruling Tuesday, but her office has previously derided the complaints as nothing more than an attempt at political retribution.

Former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, a Republican, had filed the complaint on the plane to the state’s Government Accountability Board as he faced pressure from the governor to resign over his conduct surrounding a 2020 fatal car crash. He was impeached and removed from office in June, but continued to pursue the allegations as a private citizen.

The board in August had requested the state’s Division of Criminal Investigation to probe the governor’s trips.

Hughes County State’s Attorney Jessica LaMie, who oversaw the investigation, announced in October that they found “no basis” to pursue charges on the allegations that Noem had misused the state plane or that the plane’s flight records had been altered.

The law regarding state plane use was passed as a ballot measure in 2006 in response to scrutiny of plane travel by then-Gov. Mike Rounds, who attended events such as his son’s away basketball games while on trips for other official business. At the time, Rounds, now a U.S. senator, used political funds to reimburse the state for those trips, as well as travel to political events.

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Ethics board dismisses Noem plane case, says law is unclear