Ex-official subpoenaed in probe of Noem daughter meeting

November 17, 2021 GMT

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers issued a subpoena Wednesday to the former head of the state agency at the center of questions over whether Gov. Kristi Noem influenced her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser license.

The Executive Board, which presides over other legislative committees, voted 14-1 to compel testimony from Sherry Bren, the former director of the Appraiser Certification Program. Bren had suggested the committee subpoena her because she is barred from disparaging state officials as part of a settlement agreement with the state.

The Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee has been looking into a meeting Noem held last year that included her daughter, Kassidy Peters, and Bren, following an Associated Press report about it. Bren’s agency had moved to deny Peters’ application to upgrade her real estate appraiser license, but she was granted another opportunity to pursue her license through an agreement signed more than a week after the meeting.

Noem’s labor secretary told the committee last month that regulators had already decided to give Peters another opportunity to win her license prior to the meeting.

Lawmakers were cautioned by some on the executive board to tread lightly as they probe an issue that has drawn ire from Noem, who has positioned herself for a potential White House bid. One top Republican said he wanted the committee to limit its questions to the operations of the state agency.

“We feel strongly that this has a limited scope,” Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck said. “It’s about the functionality of the appraisal program of which there’s much discussion probably in all of our districts because of the critical role appraisers play in getting financing and dealing with all housing issues.”

Although government ethics experts had said the meeting in the governor’s mansion last year may have been an abuse of the governor’s power, Noem has denied wrongdoing and said she was looking to solve a shortage of appraisers in South Dakota.

The legislative committee had also prepared to subpoena the Department of Labor and Regulation for the agreement. But Peters released the document, labeled a “stipulation agreement,” Tuesday as she announced she would leave her appraisal business.

Republican Sen. Kyle Schoenfish, who is the chair of the Government Operations and Audit Committee, said that a subpoena for the document, which called for the department to produce “an agreed disposition,” was no longer necessary.

The committee had requested Bren’s presence last month but she declined. However, Bren told the AP that she would work with lawmakers to “correct any factual inaccuracies” in the testimony Noem’s labor secretary, Marcia Hultman, gave to the committee.

Hultman pressured Bren to retire shortly after Peters received her license in November last year. The longtime agency head filed an age discrimination complaint and received a $200,000 payment from the state to withdraw the complaint and leave her job this year. Noem has said the settlement had nothing to do with her daughter.

One lawmaker on the committee, Republican Rep. Chris Karr, suggested he wanted to find out why Bren faced pressure to retire.

“It’s important that we make sure we’re protecting the employees of our state,” he said. “We’re trying to sort out all the facts.”

Bren’s testimony has not been scheduled.