Democrats in South Dakota are on the offensive against Gov. Kristi Noem for her use of state airplanes for out-of-state trips they allege violates state law.
South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Randy Seiler formally called Wednesday for the state’s Attorney General to investigate the governor’s out-of-state travel following media reports that she used state-owned planes to attend political conventions and leisure.
“The South Dakota Democratic Party calls on Attorney General Ravnsborg to immediately open a formal investigation into Gov. Noem’s apparent, numerous violations of South Dakota law,” he said in a news release sent to reporters. “Refusing to do so would be a refusal to enforce the laws of our state which is, after all, his job.”
The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Noem’s office has called the allegations of illegal travel activity “media manipulation” and defended the governor’s use of the state plane for out-of-state trips as ones taken in her role as an ambassador for South Dakota.
GOP leaders rebuked calls for an investigation, with South Dakota Republican Party Chairman Dan Lederman telling the Argus Leader that it’s nothing more than a “baseless witch hunt.”
“Democrats should quit wasting time and get to work helping Gov. Noem build stronger families and stronger communities,” he said.
Calls for an investigation are just the latest efforts by Democrats to brighten the spotlight on Noem’s use of state airplanes and state troopers for personal security in recent weeks.
A pair of bills aimed at bringing more transparency around where South Dakota’s governors go on the three state airplanes at their disposal, as well as making public the amount of tax dollars used to provide security to the governor on out-of-state trips, were introduced by lawmakers this week before quickly being slapped down by Republican-dominated legislative committees.
“This started out as more of a political effort more than an accountability effort,” Rapid City Sen. Mike Diedrich said of Senate Bill 153, which sought to make the state transportation department compile and provide public quarterly reports about where the state’s airplanes go, who’s using them and for what purpose.
The sponsor of that bill, Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said during testimony before the Senate State Affairs Committee that while flight logs are already public, they don’t include details about what purpose a flight serves.
For example, flight logs show a state airplane flew to Manassas, Virginia, in February 2020. But the log doesn’t say the purpose that trip served, which turned out to be a meeting of the Republican Governors Association.
“We owe it to the people of this state to be able to tell them how we spent their money,” Heinert said before his bill was killed along a party-line vote.
Noem’s communications director, Ian Fury, said following the defeat of Heinert’s bill that the information being sought by Democrats is available upon request.
A measure brought by Senate Minority Whip Reynold Nesiba to require the state to make public the amount it spends on providing security detail for the governor suffered the same fate.
Similar to a bill heard and defeated earlier during the legislative session, Nesiba asked members of the Senate Transportation Committee to look at travel security costs as a constitutional issue.
The South Dakota Constitution makes clear that motor fuel taxes, which pay for the South Dakota Highway Patrol’s budget, can only be used for maintenance, construction and supervision of roads. When state troopers are being sent out-of-state with the governor, that could be a Constitutional violation, Nesiba said.
“I have had LRC staff working for hours trying to determine if this is a violation,” he told the Argus Leader following the defeat of Senate Bill 165. “They finally decided that we cannot tell given the limited disclosure we receive from the Department of Public Safety.”