South Dakota Judge Rejects Gov. Noem’s Efforts to Block Transparency in American Oversight’s Public Records Lawsuit

On Thursday, a South Dakota judge ruled that American Oversight’s lawsuit seeking Gov. Kristi Noem’s travel and expense records could proceed, rejecting efforts by Noem’s office to prevent public accountability and the disclosure of her travel expense records. 

American Oversight has sought the release of expense records from trips taken while in office, including to multiple partisan events in early 2022. Nearly a year later, the public still doesn’t know whether taxpayer money was spent on those trips. Rather than releasing the requested records, Noem’s office has fought in court to avoid public disclosure, relying on unrelated proceedings and misreadings of South Dakota law.

During a hearing in the Hughes County Circuit Court, Judge Kathleen Trandahl found that, contrary to the arguments by Noem’s office, American Oversight followed proper statutory procedure and was not barred from suing for the release of the public records by a past administrative procedure. Judge Trandahl also rejected the governor’s attempts to invent new open records procedures and to impose onerous and inapplicable requirements on American Oversight as a condition of exercising the public’s right to government records.

American Oversight filed suit against Noem’s office and the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation (DLR) in September for failing to release documents requested through the state’s public records law. Among the records sought are Noem’s travel expenses from a number of trips, including several in early 2022 with overtly partisan destinations, such as a Conservative Political Action Conference event in Florida and a Republican Party event in New York. 

American Oversight first requested travel and expense records from Noem’s office in May 2022. In June, the office rejected the request, claiming that allowing the public to see any details of Noem’s travel spending would create a security risk but without explaining why it couldn’t redact only specific information that might reasonably be described as security-related. American Oversight followed up later that month with a “formal” request, which was again denied, leading us to sue in September.

“The people of South Dakota have the right to know how the governor is spending their money, particularly when it comes to travel expenses for partisan political events,” said American Oversight Executive Director Heather Sawyer. “Rather than release this information willingly and as the law requires, Gov. Noem’s office is fighting to conceal it. It’s time for Noem’s office to abandon its costly attempts to avoid transparency, and release the records the public is entitled to see.”

American Oversight is also seeking the release of DLR documents reflecting legal costs related to an age-discrimination complaint that was filed by a former state employee. That employee testified last year that she had felt pressured by Noem and others to reverse a denial of Noem’s daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser’s license. 

Through the course of litigation, Noem’s office has employed a number of arguments to avoid litigating its denial of public records requests on the merits, including arguing that unrelated administrative proceedings regarding a different request block judicial review; that South Dakota’s open records law contains unwritten requirements; that the continued withholding of records was not an ongoing harm that could be corrected by injunction; and that inapplicable statutory requirements prevent American Oversight from bringing suit. Judge Trandahl rejected each of those arguments, ruling from the bench that the lawsuit could proceed.

American Oversight has routinely obtained and published government records related to travel expenses, including those of high-level state and federal officials. For example, in November, we obtained travel expense records for multiple trips taken in 2022 by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

A transcript from Thursday’s proceedings will be available soon.

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