EXPLAINER: Will ex-official clear up Noem nepotism probe?

Politics
Kristi Noem

FILE- South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during the Family Leadership Summit, Friday, July 16, 2021, in Des Moines, Iowa. The South Dakota Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s ruling that nullified a voter-passed amendment to the state constitution that would have legalized recreational marijuana use. Gov. Kristi Noem instigated the legal fight to strike down the amendment passed by voters in November. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers are readying to hear Tuesday from a former state employee at the center of questions over whether Gov. Kristi Noem interfered in a state agency that was evaluating her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser license.

It could be the first time that longtime agency director Sherry Bren speaks publicly about a meeting in the governor’s mansion last year since The Associated Press first reported on it in September. The Republican governor held the meeting just days after Bren’s agency moved to deny Noem’s daughter, Kassidy Peters, an upgrade to her appraiser license. Peters received another opportunity to pursue her license through an agreement signed the week after the meeting.

Lawmakers have tried to dig into the facts of the episode. Noem has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. And Bren has mostly stayed silent.

Here’s what to know about the committee’s inquiry that has stretched nearly two months:

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE GOVERNOR’S MEETING?

It’s still not clear.

In an October testimony, Noem’s secretary of labor, Marcia Hultman, described the meeting as innocuous — mostly a policy discussion aimed at changes to the application process for appraiser licenses. She acknowledged that it was uncommon to have an applicant in such a meeting and said there was a “brief discussion at the end” about a plan to allow Peters to fix problems with her application and try again. Hultman excused any appearance of impropriety by saying that details of the agreement with Peters were in place before that meeting.

Noem had echoed a similar defense to reporters, saying that “the decision was already made on her path forward.” She insisted the agreement was not even broached at the meeting and Peters had only given “her personal experiences through the program.”

However, when the committee pressed Hultman’s department to show them a copy of Peters’ agreement, it was revealed that it was not signed until more than a week after the meeting.

Bren also has said she was presented with a letter at the meeting from Peters’ supervisor that slammed the agency’s decision to deny the license.

WHO IS SHERRY BREN?

She helped start the state’s Appraiser Certification Program and was its director for nearly three decades. Appraisers describe her as a by-the-books regulator.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, she’s the same for everyone,” said Amy Frink, the vice president of the Professional Appraiser Association of South Dakota, a group that has been critical of changes to the agency since Bren’s departure.

But the governor has implied that Bren was getting in the way of changes she wanted to make as the state saw a shortage of appraisers.

Hultman began pressuring Bren to retire shortly after Peters received her appraiser certification in November 2020. Bren filed an age-discrimination complaint and received a $200,000 payment from the state to withdraw the complaint and leave her job in March.

WHY IS SHE SPEAKING NOW?

She received a subpoena that compels her to answer questions.

Bren — through her lawyer — actually suggested that lawmakers subpoena her because she is barred from disparaging state officials as part of a settlement.

“Most lawyers would say, `Don’t do it unless you are subpoenaed and then you are compelled to be there,’” said Tom Wilka, a lawyer who specializes in employment litigation. “It provides more of a defense of Bren.”

WHAT WILL SHE SAY?

After Hultman’s testimony in October, Bren told the AP she wanted “to correct any factual inaccuracies” from the cabinet secretary’s account. It’s not clear beyond that.

The trajectory of Bren’s testimony will largely depend on what lawmakers ask and how much they press for details.

One powerful Republican lawmaker, Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, told the committee he hoped questioning would be limited to the “functionality of the appraisal program.”

But those words amount to little more than guidance.

Lawmakers on the committee, especially the two Democrats, previously have asked head-on questions about the governor’s meeting, Peters’ application and why Bren was pushed to retire.

They have yet to receive clear answers.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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