SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) – More than 18 months after publishing an article documenting South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s use of the state plane in 2019, Daniel Newhauser is pleased to see that some of his unanswered questions are still being asked.
Newhauser, a freelance journalist, wrote an article about Noem’s use of the aircraft based on flight logs published by Raw Story, an online news publication based in Washington, DC. The story documents when Noem used the state plane to travel to a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting at a Las Vegas casino, a networking conference called Turning Point USA Young Women’s Leadership Summit in Dallas, and a NRA Women’s Leadership Forum in San Antonio along with other trips.
“It’s good to see the long tail of investigative journalism and accountability playing out in South Dakota,” Newhauser told KELOLAND News. “The people of South Dakota clearly wanted this – this law that regulates the use of state aircraft.”
The law Newhauser was referring to was Initiated Measure 5, which voters passed 55 to 44 in 2006 to create civil and criminal penalties for violations of the use of state aircraft while off business. of State.
Newhauser said the law had gray areas and noted that it was unclear how it would be enforced.
“It’s never happened before,” he said. “So it’s very, it’s a new, very new situation.”
Newhauser’s story pointed out that the law was created because the governor at the time. Mike Rounds used the state plane to fly his son’s high school basketball games. Rounds said he would reimburse state expenses from campaign funds, but voters later passed the law.
The law didn’t appear in Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s eight years, but Noem said Daugaard used the state plane more than she did.
“It will be up to, I suppose, the Attorney General now and the people of South Dakota to decide whether or not the legitimate interests of the state are being served with the governor who travels to conferences of right-wing groups across the country, including including the NRA, Turning Point USA, the Republican Jewish Coalition and others,” Newhauser said.
Attorney General’s spokesman Mark Vargo told KELOLAND News on Wednesday that there was no update on the complaint about the state plane from the Government Accountability Board.
Jamie Smith, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate challenging Noem, has called for a special prosecutor to “investigate the extent to which Governor Noem engaged in misconduct”.
The Noem Campaign said the Government Accountability Board has not reported a single law that Noem violated and has denied any wrongdoing.
When asked what law Noem broke, Smith said he didn’t know.
“I don’t know if she broke one. That’s what this survey is supposed to find,” Smith said. “I know we South Dakotans would like to know where the plane is going. It’s not a personal plane. It’s the state plane and it should be used for state business. .
Newhauser said he knew Noem and covered for her when she was a member of the United States House of Representatives. He said he was less familiar with South Dakota politics. He also noted in his story that the use of state planes generates criticism in many other states, including Texas, Kentucky, and New York.
“It’s an age-old story. The governor uses the state’s plan for a dodgy event,” Newhauser said. “We’ve seen it, Democrats and Republicans all over the country. The difference in South Dakota is that there’s a ballot initiative; there’s an actual law on the books regulating this stuff. A lot of other states don’t have that.
Law broken or ethics questioned?
Newhauser’s story prompted South Dakota Sen. Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls) to ask then-Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to determine whether Noem’s use of the state plane violated state law.
In September 2021, Ravnsborg sent the complaint about the state plane to the Government Accountability Board, a board created in 2017 to allow people in South Dakota to raise concerns about potential wrongdoing, government fraud and conflicts of interest in state government.
In August 2022, the Government Accountability Board referred the complaint about Noem’s use of the state plane to the Attorney General’s office, now owned by Mark Vargo whom Noem appointed as Ravnsborg’s replacement after he was removed and banned to perform his duties.
The future of the complaint remains with the AG’s office and is uncertain.
“Ethics is in the eye of the beholder in a certain sense,” Newhauser said. “People vote for someone in many cases based on trust. And if there is an ethical question that calls into question the main question of trust.
Use of the state plane as public documents?
In an interview last week, Noem defended his use of the state plane. She said she used the state plane half as much as the previous governor and no one covered for it.
“It’s just a political hit job because I was the only one with enough balls to say that this attorney general who killed a guy and left him in a ditch and lied about it and the covered should no longer be the Attorney General,” Noem said.
Noem also said that the use of a state aircraft is a public record that anyone can find.
Newhauser’s story centered on aircraft recordings obtained through a public records request by Michael Petrelis, which Newhauser called a “very excellent FOIA guy.” FOIA stands for Freedom of Information Act.
“I think if someone asks for the flight logs, just hand over the flight logs,” Newhauser said. “There’s a reason FOIA people know what to ask and are so important to the journalism profession. It’s not an easy thing.
Newhauser said his story began because there were questions about Noem using the state plane while attending campaign events for President Donald Trump in the fall of 2022.
“It was pretty clear that the state plane was not being used for specific campaign-related events,” Newhauser said.
He said many flight logs show normal use — from Pierre to Watertown or Pierre to Custer State Park. He said flight logs are just a list of cities and dates that don’t say much until you cross-check the cities and dates with public information.
“Visiting the NRA, is it a matter of state or is it political?” There is a bit of both. I mean, there’s definitely room for a gray area here,” Newhauser said.