This article has been updated to include a response from Gov. Kristi Noem’s Campaign Office
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A Washington D.C.-based group, American Oversight, has filed suit against the office of Governor Kristi Noem.
The group bills itself as a non-partisan watchdog group that uses public records laws to seek transparency and accountability from government officials, according to the group’s Executive Director Heather Sawyer.
Sawyer, speaking to KELOLAND News Friday morning, said that the group was drawn to South Dakota due to concerns about how Noem was using state resources, “in particular, some of the travel-related resources for potentially partisan political purposes,” she said.
American Oversight (AO) sought records of travel costs pertaining to five different trips taken by Noem. “We wanted to know how much was that costing — and were taxpayers’ expenses being used? So we submitted those requests and we did not get responses,” said Sawyer.
Sawyer went on to explain that the governor’s office stated that they could not provide the information for security reasons. This is despite AO stating that the request for info specifically excluded costs relating to Noem’s security.
With security costs not being sought, what AO was hoping to receive was info regarding costs for things such as lodging, transportation, food and drinks and per diem payments. Sawyer says all this was denied “for security reasons.”
Sawyer says that such a flat out refusal of information (even regarding the cost of what the governor and others are or drank) on the grounds that releasing it would be a security risk is rather egregious, especially considering the number of officials who have been willing to provide that info.
“We have been able to get travel costs related to the travel for high ranking officials up to and including the President of the United States,” Sawyer said. “Department of Defense officials, Chief of Staff to the President, Department of Ed, high ranking officials who also travel with security details and have security concerns. They have been able to and have been willing to follow the law and disclose those costs, but in this case, the Governor of South Dakota elected to conceal and keep those costs hidden by hiding behind claims that there was some security implication.”
Sawyer and AO think that South Dakota law is clear on the matter of whether the public has access to state expenditures that use public funds.
The matter is laid out in SDCL 1-27-1.3: Liberal construction of public access to public records law–Certain criminal investigation and contract negotiation records exempt.
The provisions of §§ 1-27-1 to 1-27-1.15, inclusive, and 1-27-4 shall be liberally construed whenever any state, county, or political subdivision fiscal records, audit, warrant, voucher, invoice, purchase order, requisition, payroll, check, receipt, or other record of receipt, cash, or expenditure involving public funds is involved in order that the citizens of this state shall have the full right to know of and have full access to information on the public finances of the government and the public bodies and entities created to serve them. Use of funds as needed for criminal investigatory/confidential informant purposes is not subject to this section, but any budgetary information summarizing total sums used for such purposes is public. Records which, if disclosed, would impair present or pending contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations are exempt from disclosure.South Dakota Codified Law
For this reason, AO opted to file suit, hoping that the Hughes County Circuit Court will rule to compel the governor’s office to release the information requested.
Sawyer, in her time working with AO, has dealt with a number of different state and federal public records laws. We asked her, in her experience, how South Dakota’s Sunshine Law compares to those outside the state.
“It is somewhat restrictive,” Sawyer began. “It isn’t as favorable for transparency as some other states. And certainly I think FOIA is a pretty strong tool at the federal level to make sure that there’s government accountability. There are, of course, exceptions within the federal law as well for particularly sensitive things. But again, the real impetus, the intent, is to favor openness. South Dakota’s law, I think is not as favorable as some.”
However, Sawyer does believe the law is clear about the public’s entitlement to know how its money is being spent.
KELOLAND News reached out to the governor’s office on Thursday, Sept. 22, to get Noem’s reaction to the lawsuit. Communications director Tony Mangan told us the request was being sent on to Ian Fury, who has temporarily left the governor’s office to work on Noem’s campaign.
Fury gave the following statement to KELOLAND News:
“This is a baseless political attack by an activist liberal organization. They have no interest in the truth. Their tactics are typical election year propaganda.”Satement from Fury
You can view the complaint filed by AO with the Hughes County Circuit Court, here.