SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is facing a lawsuit after her office refused to release expense records on five out-of-state trips this year to a liberal watchdog group.
American Oversight, an organization that files open records requests and litigation against Republican officials, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Noem, who is in the midst of a reelection campaign and eyeing a bid for the GOP's 2024 presidential ticket. It alleges that the governor's office did not follow the state's open records law by claiming that releasing the records would create a threat to the governor's safety.
In May, the organization had requested expense records, including lodging and travel, for 2022 trips Noem had taken to a Las Vegas hunting convention, a pair of Republican Party events in Wyoming and New York, the Conservative Political Action Conference and a campaign event for Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee in Utah.
American Oversight also said that South Dakota's Department of Labor and Regulation has not responded to its records request for legal expenses associated with negotiating a $200,000 settlement agreement with a former state employee, Sherry Bren. She had filed an age discrimination complaint after she was pressured to retire by Marcia Hultman, Noem's Labor Secretary. Hultman began asking for Bren's retirement in the weeks after Noem's daughter, Kassidy Peters, completed her real estate appraiser licensure — a process in which Noem took a hands-on role.
“We have asked Governor Noem to disclose what certain high-profile matters have cost South Dakota, specifically for her travel expenses and costs related to her involvement in her daughter’s real estate licensing,” said Heather Sawyer, executive director of American Oversight. “South Dakota law requires disclosure of public spending and the public has a right to see how Governor Noem is spending their money.”
As Noem has reached national prominence in the GOP and traveled the country to speak at events, she has faced scrutiny for the costs of her travel, including inquiries of what it costs taxpayers to provide her security during out-of-state campaign events. Noem's office has declined to release those costs, saying it would threaten her security.
She is also facing an investigation into whether using a state-owned airplane to travel to 2019 events hosted by political organizations was a legal use of the aircraft. Noem has defended those trips as part of her job being an “ambassador” for the state. She did not use a state-owned airplane on the 2022 trips.
The governor’s office and the Department of Labor and Regulation did not immediately comment on the lawsuit.
Ian Fury, Noem's campaign spokesman, said in a statement, “This is a baseless political attack by an activist liberal organization. They have no interest in the truth. Their tactics are typical election year propaganda.”
He did not respond to a question on whether Noem's political funds paid for expenses such as lodging when she traveled to political events.