SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem contradicted her own labor secretary Thursday about a meeting last year in her office, saying it didn’t include any discussion about how her daughter could still win a real estate appraiser license after a state agency moved to deny it.
The Republican governor answered questions from South Dakota reporters on the episode for the first time Thursday, more than a month after The Associated Press first reported on it. While a Republican-dominated legislative committee and state government ethics board have looked into the matter, she called AP’s reporting on the meeting “twisted” and “manipulated.”
Noem’s secretary of labor defended her department’s actions to lawmakers last week by explaining that state regulators before the meeting had already reached an agreement to provide Noem’s daughter, Kassidy Peters, with an opportunity to fix issues with her application. She said the meeting mostly consisted of potential fixes to a shortage of licensed appraisers.
However, Secretary of Labor Marcia Hultman told lawmakers it also included a “brief discussion at the end” of the meeting about a “possible plan forward” for Peters to obtain her license.
But when Noem was asked by the AP at a Thursday news conference if she was aware of that plan headed into the meeting, she responded by saying, “We didn’t even talk about that” and insisted the meeting was not to discuss Peters’ application.
“She gave her personal experiences through the program,” Noem said. “Of course, she gave her perspective and how long it took to go through the program and how difficult it was.”
However, Sherry Bren, the longtime director of the Appraiser Certification Program, told the AP she was presented at the meeting with a letter from Peters’ supervisor that slammed the agency’s move to deny her the license.
Four months after the meeting, Peters received the license.
Noem once again insisted Peters “went through the exact same process that other appraisers did in the state of South Dakota. She at no time received special treatment.”
Noem has also defended her conduct in the episode by saying she was working to solve a shortage of appraisers in the state. However, she has faced backlash from the organization that represents appraisers after Hultman pressured Bren to retire late last year, shortly after Peters received her license. Bren filed an age discrimination complaint and received a $200,000 payment from the state to withdraw the complaint and leave her job.
“I came in to fix the program. And so we are fixing it,” she said. “But also we recognize that some people that have been involved in the industry for a long time don’t like that.”
The Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee, which is looking into the agency at the center of the episode, has requested copies of the agreements between Peters and the agency, but Noem said doing so would set a precedent of opening personnel files to the public.
“That’s why for consistency and to make sure that I’m being fair — because that’s exactly what I’m focused on — I would have to set that same precedent for everybody,” she said.
When asked if she would allow the documents to be opened because the agreements themselves state they are open to public inspection, she said she would let her attorneys decide what should be deemed an open record.
Attorneys for the Department of Labor and Regulation have already denied a public records request from the AP for the records. An appeals office later ruled that the department was right to deny the records request.
While Bren declined an invitation from the Legislature to speak last week, she has said she is working with her lawyer to communicate with lawmakers and correct “any factual inaccuracies” from Hultman’s testimony.