SD House wants oversight of settlements after Noem probe

January 24, 2022 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota’s Republican-controlled House on Monday signaled its lawmakers want more power to look into settlement agreements after parts of a legislative probe last year were hampered as it examined Gov. Kristi Noem’s alleged interference in a state agency that was evaluating her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser license.

A bipartisan proposal easily cleared the House on a 64-6 vote and will next head to the Senate. It would require state agencies that enter into settlement agreements to give a copy of the agreement to the Legislature, as well as makes it clear that nondisparagement clauses in the agreements cannot be used to stop people from speaking to a pair of the Legislature’s oversight committees.

“This is just an oversight that we need to have,” Republican Rep. Ernie Otten said during a House debate in which Republican lawmakers avoided any mention of the Republican governor’s actions.

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However, the Legislature’s heightened scrutiny of settlement agreements follows a report from The Associated Press that the longtime director of the state’s Appraiser Certification Program, Sherry Bren, was pressured to retire by Noem’s cabinet secretary late in 2020 and eventually received a $200,000 settlement agreement to withdraw an age discrimination complaint she filed.

Months earlier, Noem had called a meeting with her daughter, Bren and other key decision-makers, just days after the Appraiser Certification Program moved to deny her daughter’s application. Bren last month told the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee that she felt intimidated at the meeting.

Through an agreement signed after the meeting, Noem’s daughter, Kassidy Peters, received what Bren described as an unprecedented extra opportunity to show her appraiser work could meet federal requirements.

Lawmakers had also questioned why Bren was pressured to retire. But both Bren and Noem’s cabinet secretary for the Department of Labor and Regulation, Marcia Hultman, declined to answer those questions. They were both bound by a nondisparagement clause in the $200,000 agreement.

Otten said the bill would allow either the Government Operations and Audit Committee, or the Executive Board, which is made of senior lawmakers, to freely question people who have entered into settlement agreements that hold a nondisparagement clause. But that does not mean the public will get any more answers on the agreements because both boards can move into a closed-door executive session.

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“They can shut it all down,” he said. “This is a private conversation.”

Noem, who is running for reelection and has positioned herself for a 2024 White House bid, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and implied that Bren was standing in the way of efforts to make it easier for potential appraisers to get licenses.

But the organization that represents the state’s appraisers, the Professional Appraisers Association of South Dakota, has been critical of changes at the agency since Bren departed. Earlier Monday, the organization’s leadership spoke in support of a bill that would codify into law an advisory board that Bren had created, but that had fallen into disuse after she departed.

Republican lawmakers on the committee evaluating the bill, which was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Linda Duba, moved to delay action on the bill until several technical issues could be fixed. The House Commerce and Energy Committee is set to consider it Wednesday.

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This story had corrected to show the count of the House vote on the bill. It passed on a 64-6 vote. It has also corrected the day that the Professional Appraiser Association of South Dakota supported a bill. It happened Monday, not Wednesday.