SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — More than 18 months after publishing a story documenting South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s use of the state plane in 2019, Daniel Newhauser is glad to see some of his unanswered questions are still being asked.
Newhauser, a freelance reporter, wrote a story on Noem’s plane use based on flight logs published by Raw Story, a Washington, D.C., based online news publication. The story documents when Noem used the state plane to travel to a meeting of 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 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 airplanes.”
Newhauser said the law has gray areas and noted it’s unclear how it would be enforced.
“It’s never happened before,” he said. “So this is very, it’s a very novel, new situation.”
Newhauser’s story pointed out the law was created because then-Gov. Mike Rounds used the state plane to fly his son’s high school basketball games. Rounds said he would reimburse the state’s expenses from campaign funds but voters passed the law afterwards.
The law did not come up under Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s eight years, however Noem has said Daugaard used the state plane more than she has.
“It’s going to be up to, I guess, the Attorney General now and the people of South Dakota to decide whether or not legitimate state interests are served with the governor flying to conferences of right-wing groups around the country, including the NRA, Turning Point USA, the Republican Jewish Coalition and others,” Newhauser said.
Attorney General Mark Vargo’s spokesman told KELOLAND News Wednesday there was no update on the state plane complaint from the Government Accountability Board.
Jamie Smith, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee challenging Noem, called for a special prosecutor to “investigate the extent to which Governor Noem engaged in misconduct.”
The Noem campaign has said the Government Accountability Board hasn’t pointed to a single law Noem violated and has denied any wrongdoing.
When asked what law Noem broke, Smith responded he didn’t know.
“I don’t know if she broke one. That’s what this investigation is supposed to find,” Smith said. “I do know that we as South Dakotans would like to know where the airplane is going. It’s not a personal airplane. It’s the state’s airplane and it should be used for state business.”
Newhauser said he was familiar with Noem and covered her when she was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He said he was less familiar with South Dakota politics. He also noted in his story the use of state planes generates criticism in many other states including Texas, Kentucky and New York.
“This is an age-old story. Governor uses the state plan for a questionable event,” Newhauser said. “We’ve seen it, Democrats and Republicans alike 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 Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls) to request then-Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to determine whether Noem’s use of the state airplane violated state law.
In September 2021, Ravnsborg sent the state plane complaint to the Government Accountability Board, a board created in 2017 to allow South Dakotans to bring 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 airplane back to the attorney general’s office, now held by Mark Vargo who Noem appointed as Ravnsborg’s replacement after he was impeached and barred from holding office.
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 on the basis of trust. And if there’s some question about ethics that brings into question the main issue of trust.”
State plane use as public records?
In an interview last week, Noem defended her use of the state plane. She said she’s used the state plane half as much as the previous governor and no one has covered it.
“This is just a political hit job because I was the only one who had balls enough to say this attorney general that killed a guy and left him in a ditch and lied about it and covered it up shouldn’t be the attorney general anymore,” Noem said.
Noem also said state plane use is public records that anyone can find. Wednesday afternoon, the state DOT shared the records with KELOLAND News, one week after we sent a request.
Newhauser’s story centered on plane records obtained through a public records request by Michael Petrelis, who Newhauser called a “very excellent FOIA guy.” FOIA stands for Freedom of Information Act.
“I think that if somebody is asking for the flight logs, just hand over the flight logs,” Newhauser said. “There’s a reason why people who specialize in FOIA know what to ask for and are very important to the profession of journalism. It’s not an easy thing.”
Newhauser said his story started because there were questions whether Noem was using the state plane while attending campaign events for President Donald Trump in Fall 2022.
“It was pretty clear that the state plane was not being used for specifically campaign events,” Newhauser said.
He said many of the flight logs show normal use – Pierre to Watertown or Pierre to Custer State Park. He said the flight logs are just a list of cities and dates that don’t say much until you cross reference the cities and dates with public information.
“Visiting the NRA, is that state business or is it political? There’s a little bit of both. I mean, there’s certainly room for gray area here,” Newhauser said.