DLR Secretary: Meeting with Noem, daughter and state officials was unusual
The Secretary of Labor and Regulation confirmed that Gov. Kristi Noem's daughter, Kassidy Peters, met with her, the head of the appraiser program, the governor and others after Peters didn't pass an appraiser test — and that such a meeting with an applicant is uncommon.
Secretary Marcia Hultman made her comments before the Government Operations and Audit Committee on Thursday.
The meeting occurred at the governor's mansion on July 27, 2020, according to the Associated Press. Four months later, Peters gained her real estate appraiser certification. Sherry Bren, the long-term head of the Appraiser Certification Program, was asked to resign soon after.
Bren, 70, filed an age discrimination complaint but later accepted a $200,000 settlement. The settlement says the Department of Labor and Regulation denies all allegations and Bren can't disparage public officials.
Rep. Linda Duba, D-Sioux Falls, asked about the timing between Peters becoming a Certified Residential Appraiser and Bren's retirement.
"So that was granted and the very next day the executive director was asked to step down. Can you tell us why that was so close together?" she asked.
Hultman said she can't comment on anything related to personnel.
The committee invited Bren to testify but she did not attend.
"With all due respect, Ms. Bren politely declines your invitation and will not be appearing before said committee," her attorney Tim Rensch wrote in a letter. "Should you wish to subpoena her through legal process please arrange the same through this office for another date."
Government ethics experts told the Associated Press that it was a conflict of interest for Noem and Peters to be in the same meeting and that Noem should have rescued herself from discussions about the Appraiser Certification Program.
Governor Noem has not directly commented on the ethics of the meeting.
Ian Fury, Noem's spokesman, previously said "the Associated Press is disparaging the Governor’s daughter in order to attack the Governor politically — no wonder Americans’ trust in the media is at an all-time low."
“I never asked for special treatment for Kassidy,” Noem previously said. “Others went through the same process that Kassidy did.”
Noem said she's been working on reforming the appraiser certification process for several years.
The Government Operations and Audit Committee meeting focused on how the Appraiser Certification Program works and can be improved. Experts testified that South Dakota needs more appraisers.
But several committee members also had questions about the meeting and Bren's retirement.
"I think part of why we're here Mr. chair is the concern about political power and use of political power and the removal of Ms. Bren from her position," said Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls. Nesiba asked about the purpose of the meeting.
"The nature of the meeting was to talk about the current licensing process to become an appraiser in South Dakota and potential changes to that process," Hultman said.
Hultman said she, Peters, Bren, and Noem attended the meeting. Tony Venhuizen — a member of the Board of Regents who was chief of staff to Noem at the time of the meeting — two attorneys with the DLR and one attorney with the governor's office were also there.
The secretary said the DLR attorneys attended because they work very closely with the appraiser program. She did not say why the third attorney with the governor's office was there.
"Is it common practice to have an applicant in a meeting such as that to talk about the process," Duba asked?
"No," Hultman responded.
Hultman did not say who came up with the idea for the meeting and planned it.
The Secretary said it's common for applicants to meet with DLR officials to discuss how they can gain their license.
"At the very end of the meeting we discussed a possible plan forward with Ms. Peters which had been determined prior to the meeting and it was a brief discussion at the end," she said.
DLR Amber Mulder said the plan was created through multiple casual conversations. She said other applicants and staff also work together to create an education and testing plan.
"It was just the normal standard of doing business," Hultman said. She said she will send Peters' written plan to the committee if it's available under public record laws.
So why did Peters attend if she already had a plan outlining how she could become an appraiser, Nesiba asked.
The meeting "was to talk about the status quo of how to become an appraiser in South Dakota and possible changes to that program," Hultman responded.
What did Peters, an applicant, bring to this policy discussion, Nesiba asked.
"I believe that somebody that is going through the process — regardless of who they are — might have an insight into how exactly the process works," Hultman said.