Sherry Bren, who used to be the director of South Dakota’s Appraiser Certification Program which grants realtor licenses, testified during a legislative investigation about how Gov. Kristi Noem interfered in the process of her daughter Kassidy Peters obtaining a realtor’s license. Bren said she was “forced to retire” after Noem got involved. The Associated Press has the story:
Sherry Bren testifies against South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem to legislature
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s daughter received unusual treatment in an application for her real estate license, including an extra opportunity to obtain it after failing to meet federal requirements, the former director of a state appraiser agency told lawmakers Tuesday.
Sherry Bren testimony before a legislative panel was the first time that she has spoken in depth in public about Kassidy Peters’ application and about a meeting that her mother called last year to discuss the appraisal process. The panel began looking into the July 2020 meeting at the governor’s office after The Associated Press first reported on it in September.
Noem called the meeting a week after the state’s Appraiser Certification Program notified her daughter that her application was headed for denial. Peters ultimately obtained the certification four months later, in November 2020, and Bren said she was subsequently “forced to retire” from a program that she had led since its inception in 1991.
Bren testified that she felt “intimidated” at the July meeting, where she said Peters’ unsuccessful application was discussed in detail and a plan was formulated that gave her another chance to apply.
The agency’s formation of that plan — labeled a “stipulation agreement” — at that point in the application process had never been done before, Bren said. She said it broke with established procedures because it gave Peters a third chance to pass a work review; applicants are usually granted two opportunities.
Yet even before that, Bren said, Peters’ application had departed from established practice, when Noem’s cabinet secretary took an unusual, hands-on role that spring.
The panel’s inquiry into the state’s Appraiser Certification Program comes as Noem has positioned herself as a prospect for the GOP presidential ticket in 2024 and shown a willingness to jab at potential rivals.
Noem has denied wrongdoing, casting her actions as an effort to cut red tape to address a shortage of appraisers certified by the state. Noem also has insisted the agreement was not even broached at the July meeting and said her daughter had only given “her personal experiences through the program.”
“There’s been a continual narrative that I did something to help her get licensed, which is absolutely false,” Noem aaid at an event Monday.
In testimony Tuesday, Bren said she had expected to see the governor and her labor secretary at the July meeting, but was surprised to see others, including Peters and the governor’s top aides.
“Once I got there, I was very nervous, and, quite frankly, intimidated,” Bren said.
She said Noem began the meeting by saying she knew that South Dakota is the hardest state to be licensed as an appraiser and she intended “to get to the bottom of that.” Most requirements to be certified as an appraiser are set at the federal level, but Bren said that some state standards went beyond that minimum.
As Bren testified, the governor’s office continued to cast the stipulation agreement as proof that Noem had not sought special treatment for her daughter. Ian Fury, the governor’s spokesman, posted on Twitter to say that the agreement showed that Peters had to meet additional requirements to get her license.
Fury also pointed out that the department had previously entered into a “stipulation agreement,” but Bren said her agency had never initiated one and the previous “stipulation agreement” was reached in a separate process from a license upgrade.
In another departure from normal procedure, Peters said Secretary of Labor Marcia Hultman had pushed in the spring for Bren to strike a requirement that Peters take additional appraiser classes. Bren said she could not remember a cabinet secretary ever getting involved in that process.
Hultman had previously told the committee that Peters’ application was handled in the same way as many other applicants. Although she acknowledged it was uncommon to have an applicant like Peters in a meeting with top administration officials, Hultman said last year’s meeting in the governor’s mansion did not influence how the department handled Peters’ application because regulators had already set up a plan to let her fix shortcomings and try again.
But Bren told lawmakers that at the meeting, “I recall the discussion focused on crafting a second agreement, requiring Peters to complete the classes. Peters agreed to complete the classes, correct and rewrite the appraisal reports and submit them for review to the examiner.”
The agreement was signed more than a week after the meeting.
Bren’s appearance Tuesday was compelled by subpoena. She was pressed to retire after Peters got her license in November 2020, filed an age discrimination lawsuit and accepted a $200,000 settlement that bars her from disparaging state officials.
Bren testified that she was “forced to retire.” Asked later to say why, she said: “I believe that it was age discrimination and beyond that would be strictly speculation on my part.”
Several lawmakers said they would like to see the state remove the non-disparagement clause from Bren’s agreement because it would let them get an understanding of why Bren was pressured to retire.
“This is a question about, was a long-time, dedicated employee, was she wrongfully fired? Was she wrongfully fired on behalf of a relative of the governor? And did the state end up paying $217,000 to cover that up?” said Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat. “And we’re not going to know the answer to that question because of this non-disparagement clause.”
By STEPHEN GROVES