GOP governor Kristi Noem used state aircraft for tens of thousands of dollars in political travel

GOP governor Kristi Noem used state aircraft for tens of thousands of dollars in political travel
Gage Skidmore.
News & Politics
Newly unearthed flight logs show South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem used a state airplane to travel to right wing political events around the country, a revelation that has state lawmakers questioning whether she violated a state law forbidding political and personal use of the aircraft.
The flight logs, published for the first time in this report, raise questions about the propriety of tens of thousands of dollars' worth of taxpayer-funded flights to out-of-state events hosted by groups such as the National Rifle Association, Turning Point USA, and an organization affiliated with the late GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, South Dakota politicians and experts told Raw Story.
Also in question is whether Noem wasted taxpayer money by having the state airplane pick her up for official business when she was living at her family home in Castlewood, rather than in the governor's residence in Pierre, the state's capital where the airplane is kept. In one case, the airplane picked her up from her daughter's wedding in the far west part of the state.
In the Mount Rushmore State, all this would not be just an ethics lapse; state law forbids the use of a state-owned aircraft for anything other than state business. There are no exceptions, and the law mandates fines of ten times the cost of the flight for a plane's misuse..

"Governor Noem follows the law when weighing whether it is appropriate to use state aircraft," Noem's spokesman, Ian Fury, wrote in an email. "One of Governor Noem's primary roles as Governor is to be South Dakota's top ambassador to the rest of the nation. She has made this a big part of her governorship, advertising to attract businesses to our state, to drive tourism to our state, and to appeal to particular industries."

Still, the revelations come as lawmakers are already questioning what it costs the state to have as governor a rising star in the Republican party — and whether all this raises the state's profile, or just her own. Noem is frequently cited as a potential 2024 presidential candidate.

Amid a $5 million request she included in her budget outline to fund the purchase of a new state airplane, South Dakota senators will debate a bill this week probing the cost of her taxpayer-funded security detail, which traveled alongside her as she toured the country as a surrogate for then-President Donald Trump's reelection campaign.

The out-of-state trips identified by a Raw Story analysis of the flight logs appear to have had nothing to do with her Trump campaign-related travel, which the governor's communications team has previously said all took place on commercial aircraft or on planes paid for by other campaigns.

Instead, this travel all occurred in 2019, before the presidential campaign was in full swing. Noem traveled by plane to speak before conservative political interest groups and GOP power players. The trips included an NRA conference in San Antonio; a gathering in Dallas of the right-wing youth group Turning Point USA; and a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition at a Las Vegas casino. She also regularly used the plane to travel to get-togethers hosted by a group for Republican governors in Aspen, Boca Raton and Kentucky.

Other travel appeared to blend the personal and the professional. A trip to New York City to see South Dakota's Mount Rushmore float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade doubled as a food- and shopping-filled family holiday that flight logs show coincided with Noem's 48th birthday.

"They just fail the smell test," University of South Dakota political science professor Michael Card said of these trips. "It's not following the law, as I understand it. ... Whenever we look the other way, it encourages that sort of behavior to continue."

Political interest groups

The flight logs, which were discovered for Raw Story by public records activist Michael Petrelis, are often difficult to decipher. It's not clear where the plane was on any given day of a multi-day trip because each trip's entire itinerary is listed on each day the trip occurred. The governor's spokesman also identified a few areas where he said the logs are incorrect.

Raw Story pieced together Noem's schedule using posts on social media and press reports detailing her whereabouts. The flight logs did not include any information about the events for which state planes were being used or who was on the state planes at the time. However, the governor's spokesman did provide Raw Story with a full accounting of the trips in question.

It is also unclear exactly how much each trip cost taxpayers. Raw Story calculated a ballpark estimate by determining the air mileage of each itinerary and multiplying that by $5.95, the cost-per-mile cited on the flight logs for the use of a King Air 200, the plane on which all of the flights in question occurred.

Flight logs obtained through a public records request for Raw Story by Michael Petrelis.

Among the flights was travel in April 2019 from Pierre to Watertown to Rock Springs, Wyoming and eventually Las Vegas. That trip is estimated to have cost taxpayers more than $13,400.

Noem appeared in Las Vegas during that time at the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a $1,750-per-ticket gala held at the Venetian Resort. The luxury hotel and casino was owned by Adelson, then a member of the group's board of directors.

The group's mission is to "foster and enhance ties between the American Jewish community and Republican decision makers," according to its website. Noem spoke at the organization's annual soiree alongside Trump, then-Vice President Mike Pence, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other national GOP figures.

A YouTube video of Noem's speech shows she spoke effusively about Trump and his love of Israel, touted her governing philosophy and even gave a shout-out to South Dakota's one full-time rabbi and the state's tiny Jewish community, which consists of a few hundred people.

"She views this trip as part of her role as South Dakota's ambassador," Fury wrote in an email. "President Trump and Vice President Pence were also at the meeting. While she was there, she met with... members of Congress to discuss various South Dakota priorities."

Adelson died last month, but while he was alive, he and his wife donated millions to Republican causes. In 2019, each gave $4,000 to Noem's gubernatorial campaign, the maximum individual donation allowed by the state. So did Republican Jewish Coalition board member and Manhattan financier Paul Singer, another major Republican donor, according to Noem's campaign finance disclosures.

Unlike federal financial records, South Dakota does not require campaigns to specify the date of the donation, so it's unclear whether the donations were tied specifically to Noem's appearance at the Las Vegas event. Fury declined to disclose the specific dates of the contributions but said Noem did not meet with Singer or the Adelsons at this RJC meeting.

Noem also has notable financial backers in Wyoming. Fury said landing there was nothing more than a refueling pitstop. He similarly explained many other cities on several itineraries as fuel stops, including Janesville, Wisconsin; Peoria, Illinois; and Flint, Michigan.

That summer, Noem traveled to Dallas to speak at the Turning Point USA Young Women's Leadership Summit, an annual invite-only event that offers young conservative women activism training and networking opportunities with Republican leaders. Later in the trip, Noem attended a meeting of the Western Governors Association in Vail, Colorado — undoubtedly a legitimate use of the state aircraft for nonpartisan state business. But the Dallas jaunt is estimated to have cost South Dakota taxpayers more than $7,200.

"All of this is official business," Fury wrote.

Between Sept. 27 and Sept. 29, 2019, the governor's plane flew from Rapid City to San Antonio, before coming back to Watertown and Pierre. In San Antonio, Noem spoke at the NRA Women's Leadership Forum, a women's arm of the gun rights advocacy organization. The estimated cost of that trip landed at more than $13,500.

Noem speaking to the NRA Women's Leadership Forum in San Antonio, which she visited during one of her trips on a state aircraft.

Fury maintained that this, too, was a business trip, and highlighted the fact that the first legislation Noem signed into law was a " constitutional carry" bill, a measure heavily supported by the NRA that allows people to carry concealed pistols without a permit in South Dakota.

"Governor Noem has worked to highlight South Dakota as one of the most 2nd Amendment-friendly states in the country," Fury wrote. "She has worked to attract Americans who respect freedom – including our 2nd Amendment freedoms – to move to South Dakota. As such, this meeting is official business."

Others disagree. South Dakota Republican state Rep. Taffy Howard has been critical of Noem's use of taxpayer money and sponsored an unsuccessful House bill to force Noem reveal the cost of her security detail, something the governor has so far refused to do. When asked about some of the itineraries on the logs, Howard said she had concerns.

"I'm a member of the NRA, but I would probably consider that to be political," she said in an interview. "Our elected officials should be cautious as to how they spend taxpayer funds, so we need to be asking questions. If taxpayer funds are being spent on travel that's questionable, we have every right to find that information and dig into it. I don't care what party you're in."

Mixing business and pleasure

Other flights out of the state were perhaps less political, but also not obviously tied to state business. In June 2019, Noem appeared at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Women in Business event. The state plane flew at that time to St. Paul, Minnesota at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $4,000. Fury said it was a legitimate state cost.

"Governor Noem has aggressively worked to attract Minnesota businesses to South Dakota, and this meeting was part of those efforts," he said. The meeting was a full year before Noem launched an ad campaign to lure Minnesota business owners tired of Covid-19 restrictions.

An October 2019 trip to Indianapolis, estimated to cost more than $9,400, coincided with the Protect the Harvest Denim and Diamonds gala, a banquet and silent auction fundraiser. Protect the Harvest is a nonprofit founded by Lucas Oil owner Forrest Lucas that exists to "fight back" against "the growing threat posed by the radical animal rights movement."

"Agriculture is the largest industry in South Dakota's economy," Fury said, defending the trip as state business.

The next month, a state aircraft flew from Pierre to Watertown, then on to White Plains, New York, landing in an airfield just outside of New York City.

Noem posted on her Instagram account that she went there to watch the South Dakota float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the tenth year in a row the float had been part of the festivities. She said she was "proud of the relationships built between this partnership and opportunities ahead."

"This is a major annual effort on behalf of South Dakota's tourism industry," Fury said. "While there, the Governor attended the Inflation Celebration to help highlight the importance of the Mount Rushmore float. This absolutely qualifies as part of the Governor's role as South Dakota's ambassador."

But on Instagram, Noem also went on to describe how she, most of her immediate family and her close friend U.S. Rep. Jason Smith (R-MO) had a fun-filled weekend, posting several photos and a video of her doing a distinctive dance in front of Tom's Restaurant, famous for its cameo in the Seinfeld television show.

"We had a great day at the parade, visited Bryant Park, @rockefellercenter, shopping at Macy's for 10 minutes then getting out of there because it was CRAZY busy, visiting the @seinfeldtv cafe, (I'm doing the Elaine 'excited' dance here) and Thanksgiving dinner at the Plaza," Noem posted.

Noem outside the restaurant made famous by Seinfeld, which she visited during one of her trips using a state aircraft.

In a later Instagram post, she added that "@repjasonsmith spent Thanksgiving with us in NYC enjoying the parade, Radio City Music Hall Christmas spectacular, ice skating in Central Park.....all super fun."

That flight is estimated to have cost South Dakota taxpayers more than $17,200, almost as much as Noem's campaign reported spending for all travel costs in all of 2019.

The itinerary shows that journey concluded on Dec. 1, 2019, which would have placed Noem's 48th birthday, Nov. 30, 2019, within the trip, with stops in Flint, Michigan; Janesville, Wisconsin; Sioux Falls and Pierre. Fury, however, contended all this was an error on the flight log. He said Noem flew home to Watertown on her birthday and that the plane refueled in Flint on the way to New York and in Janesville on the way back.

Other flights took Noem to meetings of the Republican Governors Association, which states on its website that it is "dedicated to one primary objective: electing and supporting Republican governors." Noem has served on the group's executive committee since 2019.

Fury said these were not political meetings.

"These RGA meetings include policy sessions and face time with other Governors," he said. "They are not political in nature, and thus they are absolutely state business. Previous South Dakota governors have used state aircraft to fly to RGA events as well."

A November 2019 flight to Boca Raton for the RGA annual meeting is estimated to have cost more than $20,000. In May 2019, the state plane flew to Louisville, Kentucky, again stopping in Watertown on the way back to Pierre, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $10,500. The trip coincided with the RGA Corporate Policy Summit.

Another trip coincided with a National Governors Association meeting in Salt Lake City, but also included a prior stop in Aspen for an RGA meeting. That gathering garnered heavy press coverage because former White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders attended amid rumors she would run for governor of Arkansas, and because Pence and Ivanka Trump attended other events nearby. Fury said in addition to the National Governors Association meeting, Noem attended a rodeo in Salt Lake City during her time there.

"One of Governor Noem's biggest efforts as South Dakota's ambassador has been highlighting South Dakota as a top destination for national rodeo events, and this stop was part of those efforts," he said.

South Dakota Democratic state Sen. Reynold Nesiba, the sponsor of the senate bill seeking transparency in Noem's travel security costs, thinks these trips should not have been made on the state aircraft. Nonpartisan groups like the National Governors Association or the Western Governors Association are one thing, he said, but a partisan governors' group is an overtly political organization.

"This looks like somebody who is personally and politically benefiting from South Dakota state assets," Nesiba said. "Conservatives of all people should be saying nobody should be politically or personally enriching themselves at the public trough."

This kind of criticism is nothing new for governors: when Rick Perry governed Texas, he took flack for taking trips having to do with the RGA, as did former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory took heat for frequent trips home to Charlotte on the taxpayer dime. The New York Timesrecently scrutinized Gov. Andrew Cuomo's use of the state airplanes and helicopters. Oklahoma's and California's former governors recently weathered scandals of their own.

Even South Dakota has its own recent state-plane scandal, which is why the state law limiting its use exists in the first place.

In-state, but personal

Before Nesiba ran for office, he was a university professor and a leading activist in favor of passing a ballot initiative limiting how state airplanes can be used. The efforts followed a high-profile scandal after the state Democratic Party obtained flight logs for then-Gov. Mike Rounds, now one of the state's two U.S. senators.

The Argus Leader ran an expose noting Rounds had been flying himself and others on a state plane to his son's high school basketball games. Rounds argued that he reimbursed the state from campaign funds, but voters were nonplussed and approved the ballot measure anyway.

Now the law mandates "any aircraft owned or leased by the state may be used only in the conduct of state business." State vehicles can be used to travel to and from a governor's home, but that exception is not applicable "regarding the use of any aircraft owned or leased by the state or any of its agencies," the law reads. The law does not specify who decides what's state business, and no one has ever been charged or convicted under the statute.

Noem's flight schedule did not sync up with her son's basketball games like Rounds' flights did, but her flight logs do appear to show some intersections with family events.

The state aircraft made two separate stops at Custer State Park on May 30, 2019, according to the flight logs. That would have been two days before Noem attended the wedding of her eldest daughter there. In between the two flights to the park, the aircraft made stops in Vermillion and Aberdeen, where social media posts and news articles show Noem was visiting youth groups.

Fury explained that the state plane picked Noem up in Custer, "where she was helping her daughter Kassidy prepare for her wedding" and after the meetings in Vermillion and Aberdeen, "she was then dropped off in Custer, where she had begun her day." The plane, meanwhile, began and ended the day without Noem in its hangar in Pierre, he said.

"Picking her up for official travel is part of the official travel, and the same is true for dropping her off," Fury said. "In the specific instance of Custer, Governor Noem originally got herself to Custer at her own expense."

It is indisputable, however, that picking her up increased the cost of the trip. The extra stops in Custer more than doubled the estimated cost of the trip over what it would have cost to fly from Pierre, turning what would have been a roughly $3,100 trip into one that cost upwards of $6,700.

The state plane also made frequent stops in Watertown, the city which contains the closest airport to Noem's family home in Castlewood. In all, the logs show some 30 trips that included stops in Watertown — including a stop there on half of all the weeks during Noem's first four months in office.

"The state aircraft is based out of Pierre," Fury explained. "If the Governor is in Watertown and needs to fly to a destination, the plane flies to Watertown to pick her up. Or it may drop her off in Watertown at the end of a day of official travel. Some of her travel includes events in Watertown itself."

Fury said they interpret this to be an appropriate use of the state airplane under state law.

"Under this statute, it would be inappropriate for her to simply use the state plane as a shuttle between Watertown and Pierre – and she has never used it in such a manner," he said.

Still, the estimated cost to taxpayers for this was $37,000 over what those itineraries would have cost had those trips not included a Watertown stop. By contrast, flight logs for Noem's predecessor, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, show the state aircraft made three trips per year to Watertown in each year during his second term between 2015 and 2018.

Some of Noem's trips to Watertown clearly did include state business, for instance, the 17th annual Governor's Luncheon at the Lake Area Technical Institute in April 2019 and a Sept. 2020 stop to present Watertown with a "Large Community of the Year" award.

Other times, however, her reason for being Watertown appeared personal. For instance, in April 2019 and September 2019, Noem posted photos online about her son's high school prom and homecoming. Both days, the state plane appears to have left Pierre, picked her up from Watertown for business around the state, before dropping her back off in Watertown and then heading back to Pierre without her.

Noem and her husband, first gentleman Bryon Noem, have spoken openly about the difficulties of her serving as governor while her son was completing his last year of high school. Her husband runs an insurance business that keeps him tied to the family home. Where Noem spends most of her time was a subject of speculation locally during her first year in office.

"I am gone a lot, and he is left to handle all things related to kids, ranch, and house," Noem wrote in a heartfelt Instagram post celebrating her husband. In a September 2019 profile of the state's first first gentleman, he told the Black Hills Pioneer, "I go back and forth, she goes back and forth; we make it work."

But some in South Dakota expressed small sympathy for the governor, noting that she signed up for the job and is given a large house in the capital, while many members of the citizen legislature regularly make longer journeys by car to Pierre.

"Taxpayers provide the governor with an incredible residence to live in and incredible accommodations to work in, and shuttling her back and forth to her family farm is not the responsibility of the taxpayers," said Steve Hildebrand, a Sioux Falls-based political strategist, who helped run President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. "Legislators from all over the state drive every week to Pierre for legislative session, a longer trip than it would be from Watertown to Pierre."

Others, however, said these kinds of trips should be forgiven.

"Part of what you've got to do to attract talented people to serve is make some of the pain and vagaries of the job a little bit easier," said Mark Mickelson, a former Republican state representative who considered running for governor in 2018.

A jet for a jet setter?

Mickelson said the worst thing that could come out of all this is that lawmakers reconsider Noem's request for a new aircraft. Mickelson should know something about that: his father, then-Gov. George S. Mickelson, died along with seven others in 1993 when a state-owned airplane malfunctioned and crashed.

"When it comes to buying new and safe aircraft, it's something the state ought to do," he said. "It's not a place to cut corners."

Noem has cited the Mickelson crash as a reason to update the state fleet. At a news conference last week, the local press asked Noem about out-of-state trips and whether she plans to upgrade to a jet over the current propeller fleet.

"In all of last year, I used the state aircraft to leave the state once, and it was to go to Minneapolis to catch a commercial flight for an official event," she said.

Fury clarified that there were actually two out-of-state trips last year, adding a flight to Washington, D.C. for a National Governors Association meeting. He didn't answer whether the change in flight patterns in 2020 was due to Covid-19 lockdowns reducing the frequency of travel or for another reason. Noem was slated to speak at the Republican Jewish Coalition event again in 2020, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic.

"This is not something I'm making a decision on," Noem said about the jet at the press conference. "We will contract with people who are experts at choosing the correct aircraft for the state's needs."

Will the request be a harder sell for lawmakers who question whether the state's needs were well served by Noem's trips in 2019? As states reopen, live events resume, and Noem's profile grows, it remains to be seen if the state would ground a rising Republican star — or at least try to ensure she's not misusing taxpayer money on her way up.

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