SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A lengthy investigation into South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s use of the state plane in 2019 has reached a conclusion.
More than 20 months and 600 days after Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls) first filed his complaint, Hughes County State’s Attorney Jessica LaMie announced Tuesday, Oct. 25, the Division of Criminal Investigation’s inquiry into complaints about Noem’s misuse of the state airplane was complete and “there were no facts to support a criminal prosecution under current law.”
On Twitter, Noem’s spokesman Ian Fury called the complaint “a political attack.” Fury told KELOLAND News Thursday his tweets were Noem’s lone statement on the matter.
“An independent prosecutor has confirmed what we have known all along,” Fury said in a tweet Tuesday night. “This was nothing but a political attack in retaliation from a disgraced attorney general who killed a man, lied about it, and tried to cover it up.”
Nesiba, who is seeking re-election in District 15 in central Sioux Falls, filed an official complaint with the attorney general’s office dated Feb. 24, 2021 about Noem’s state plane use. He told KELOLAND News he was disappointed in the length of the investigation and the eventual outcome.
“I’m deeply disappointed with state’s attorney LaMie and the decision that she made,” Nesiba told KELOLAND News. “I do understand state’s attorneys have some discretion and we saw that with the prosecution of our attorney general (Jason Ravnsborg).”
Nesiba first asked then-Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to see if Noem violated that 2006 law with trips first documented by Raw Story.
Noem denied any wrongdoing at the time, citing “state business” for 2019 trips to the Republican Jewish Coalition 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 among other trips.
“Here we are a year and half later. The right way for this to have been dealt with was for the attorney general to investigate and then decide whether to prosecute or not,” Nesiba said. “Jason Ravnsborg had his own share of problems and was under the cloud of impeachment. He sat on it for months, then decided to kick it over to the Government Accountability Board.”
Fury also blamed Ravnsborg, and his eventual impeachment trial, for playing politics with the state plane investigation.
“Governor Noem did the right thing calling on him to resign and remained focused on her job. She is committed to continue to fight for the hard working people of South Dakota,” Fury tweeted on Tuesday.
Nesiba said he disagreed LaMie was a true independent prosecutor on the issue. LaMie is listed as the lone Republican candidate for the Hughes County State’s Attorney position in 2022. LaMie was asked to oversee the inquiry after current Attorney General Mark Vargo recused himself from the complaint since he had recently been appointed to the position by Noem following Ravnsborg’s impeachment.
“If you want to clear the governor’s name, what you need is somebody who’s not a Republican State’s Attorney doing this,” Nesiba said. “I think that this could have been acted on. To me, the plain language of state business, or conduct of state business, does not include the governor using the airplane to fly family members to a family wedding. That doesn’t include her flying to a partisan political event.”
Nesiba first became active in South Dakota politics in 2006 when he spearheaded a ballot measure to restrict certain uses of the state owned airplane. He successfully helped pass Initiated Measure 5 in 2006, 55% to 44%, which created South Dakota codified law 5-25-1.1 to create a misdemeanor penalty for violation of state-owned aircraft not being used for “state business.” The definition of “state business” is not defined within state law.
Nesiba noted in 2006, Attorney General Larry Long’s explanation of IM 5 stated state plane use for “state business, with no exceptions.” He suggested South Dakotans defined state business when they voted in 2006 in response to then Gov. Mike Rounds use of the state plane.
“He was flying family members to basketball games,” Nesiba said. “He had a slush fund that was set up where you could pay money so you could be on the airplane with Mike. The people of South Dakota said we want our standard state airplane to only be used for state business.”
Nesiba said the current law allows the attorney general or a state’s attorney discretion to look at “state business” and what it means.
“If we need to revisit this coming session and bring statute clarity to what state business is, then we’ll do that,” Nesiba said. “If we do need to go back and simply put a definition in statute of what constitutes state business, then I would hope that Republicans and Democrats alike would respect the will of the people and get that done.”
Audits for state plane use?
State airplane use generating criticism is not solely a South Dakota issue. The topic has been discussed and criticized in many states including Texas, Kentucky, Minnesota and New York.
Nesiba said Minnesota conducts an official audit of the governor’s use of the state airplane. He thought a state audit could take place and operate within the legislature’s existing Government Operations and Audit committee.
“We should have an annual report,” Nesiba said. “Regardless of the political party that the governor belongs to, the governor in the state of South Dakota should never use the state airplane for personal or political benefit.”
KELOLAND News received state flight logs and passenger manifests for flights on state planes from January 2018 to August 2022 after a formal open records request to the South Dakota Department of Transportation.