Democratic lawmaker asks AG to investigate Noem's plane use


PIERRE (AP) – A South Dakota Democratic lawmaker has formally requested the state's attorney general determine whether Gov. Kristi Noem's use of the state airplane to attend events hosted by political organizations violated state law.

Democratic Sen. Reynold Nesiba asked Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, who is tasked with issuing legal opinions to lawmakers, to open an investigation into whether Noem used state-owned airplanes for “personal use, out-of-state political campaigning, and attending partisan political events," in a letter dated Wednesday. A voter-passed state law, spearheaded by Nesiba in 2006 before he was a legislator, stipulates that state-owned aircraft can only be used for state business.

“It does look like there’s been personal use, as well as political use,” Nesiba said of the Republican governor's flights.

The request came amid the attorney general's own political crisis as he faces calls from the governor for his resignation and moves to impeach him for his conduct during a fatal car crash last year.

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the request.

But Nesiba said the attorney general is the only officer who can enforce state laws on airplane use, pointing out that this is an opportunity for Ravnsborg to prove his assertion that he can continue to do his job despite his political problems.

Noem flew in state planes to 2019 events hosted by political organizations like the National Rifle Association, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Women, Turning Point USA, and the Republican Jewish Coalition. She also used a state plane to fly to New York City with her family, where a float from the Department of Tourism appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But she has defended those trips as part of her job as “an ambassador for the state.”

“Whenever the state airplane is used, it has always been used according to the law,” the governor said last week, adding that the scrutiny on her travel was a political attack.

However, Democrats have cast their efforts to examine the use of state planes as a nonpartisan issue that should concern taxpayers. The news website Raw Story first reported on Noem's use of state aircraft.

“If you’re mixing it with pleasure, I think you should have to take a commercial flight like everybody else does,” Nesiba said, pointing to how Noem’s family members had joined her on the 2019 trip to New York.

Noem posted a photo of her family in New York City and described how they had spent Thanksgiving “cheering on” the state's Mount Rushmore float and sightseeing around the city.

She also posted that the trip, made on the 10th anniversary of South Dakota's float appearing in the parade, made her proud “of the relationships built between this partnership and opportunities ahead.”

Last year, Noem's profile among conservatives grew as she flew around the country for campaigns, political events and fundraisers. But she did not use state aircraft to fly to those events, according to flight logs of the state planes.

Noem made just two out-of-state flights on state planes last year – one to Minneapolis to catch a flight to Washington, D.C. to attend the signing of former President Donald Trump's trade deal with China, and another to Virginia to attend meetings of the National Governor's Association and Republican Governor's Association.

However, her request this year for $5 million to purchase a new state plane has drawn efforts for greater scrutiny by lawmakers. The House moved Thursday to require the Legislature's sign-off on the final purchasing decision. Though that effort failed, lawmakers will continue to negotiate the budget for the next two weeks.

Noem has distanced herself from the decision to buy the plane, saying the Department of Transportation would make the decision on what meets the state's needs. She has also argued that the state's current fleet of three planes needs repairs, and the best plan would be to sell two of them to add to the pot of money for a new plane. The state is slated to spend $ 1 million over the next three years in maintaining the planes it currently owns.

Noem said the plan would “make the entire process in transportation much more efficient and accountable to taxpayers.”

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