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Ex-official says she felt ‘intimidated’ in meeting with Kristi Noem that led to daughter’s appraiser license

Sherry Bren, the former director of South Dakota's Appraiser Certification Program, speaks to a legislative committee in Pierre, S.D., on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. The committee has probed into whether Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) interfered in the state agency that was evaluating her daughter's application for a real estate appraiser license. (Stephen Groves/AP)
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A former state official testified Tuesday that she felt “intimidated” at a meeting last year with South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R), and that it resulted in an unusual third chance for the governor’s daughter to get her real estate appraiser license.

Noem has claimed that her daughter “went through the exact same process that others did in South Dakota to become an appraiser” and denied seeking “special treatment” for her. But the governor’s meeting last year with officials overseeing the state’s licensing process — first scrutinized by the Associated Press — sparked allegations of nepotism and led state Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg (R) to launch a review.

Sherry Bren, the former director of South Dakota’s Appraiser Certification Program, told state lawmakers Tuesday that the meeting dealt explicitly with the pending case of Noem’s daughter, Kassidy Peters. The governor — a rising Republican star often discussed as a potential presidential candidate — has said the gathering was not meant to address Peters’s application.

Bren said she was taken aback to see Peters and a host of officials at the meeting, held on July 27, 2020, at the governor’s mansion, days after authorities moved to reject Peters’s application.

“I was very nervous and quite frankly, intimidated,” Bren testified. “As you can imagine. The governor started the meeting with essentially the statement, ‘I know for a fact that South Dakota is the hardest state to get licensed in as an appraiser, and I intend to get to the bottom of this.’”

A spokesman for Noem, Ian Fury, suggested Tuesday that Bren was not credible but did not dispute specifics in Bren’s account of Peters’s application process.

Democratic and Republican state leaders alike have said the meeting raises questions.

Peters said last month that she would leave the real estate appraisal business by the end of the year, denying any wrongdoing and saying legislative scrutiny “destroyed” her business.

South Dakota attorney general ‘actively reviewing’ Gov. Kristi Noem’s controversial family meeting

From May 2019 through June 2020, 18 out of 19 appraiser applications were approved, according to Bren, though some candidates had to correct and submit their materials a second time — which officials allow for all candidates.

Bren said a supervisor notified her on July 26, 2020, that a meeting at the governor’s mansion would cover several topics: the broad criteria for denying applications, the number of denials and approvals each year and the question, “Are we saying that Kassidy can take certain classes and resubmit?”

Applicants typically get two chances as they seek to “upgrade” their state credentials, Bren explained. First they submit appraisals for review and take a national exam. If the appraisals are not up to standard, the candidate can correct them and resubmit, and can also get help from a reviewer. But if those revised appraisals are still not acceptable, she said, then the applicant is denied — though they may elect to take their case further by requesting a hearing.

“I’d say that second review almost sounds like an open-book test,” said South Dakota Sen. Wayne Steinhauer (R). “Is that a fair assessment?”

“Yes,” Bren said.

The review process for Noem’s daughter was unusual even before the mansion meeting, Bren told lawmakers. She said she initially drafted an agreement requiring further appraisal education for Peters, but was asked to remove that part and only made a recommendation.

“Was it common for the secretary of labor to suggest amendments like that?” one of the legislators asked. No, Bren said.

Bren said that during the July 27 meeting she “mentioned the appraisal classes that I thought would be helpful for Peters,” and the governor was “upset that she was just now hearing about these classes.”

Meeting attendees then discussed a “second agreement requiring Peters to complete the classes,” Bren said, and Peters agreed to take the courses and resubmit her appraisal reports.

Bren affirmed that the “stipulation agreement” that came out of the discussions was outside normal procedures.

“I was not advised of any changes that I needed to make to the appraiser certification program,” she added.

The Department of Labor and Regulation did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening, nor did a contact listed for the Appraiser Certification Program, which comes under the department’s purview. South Dakota Labor Secretary Marcia Hultman has told lawmakers that a “brief discussion at the end” of the mansion meeting addressed a possible way forward for Peters’s application.

Noem spokesman Fury on Tuesday took issue with Bren’s statement that to her knowledge, a “second agreement or stipulation agreement” had not been offered to applicants before Peters’s case. He noted in an emailed statement that another appraiser candidate got a “stipulation agreement” in 2017.

But Bren said she did not recall that case and that, regardless, it seemed to involve a new applicant who sought an administrative hearing, making the situation different from Peters’s.

Steinhauer, the Republican lawmaker, also suggested he would not fault Bren for struggling to recall everything. “Your memory has been very good,” he said. “We appreciate your testimony and your straightforwardness.”

Peters got her license a few months after the meeting. Bren said she was pushed to retire.

On Tuesday, she reiterated that she was forced out of her position and blamed “age discrimination,” but declined to go into more detail, citing the advice of her attorney.

She previously settled with the state for $200,000 while agreeing not to publicly disparage her ex-employer. Her department did not admit fault.

Bren said that to her knowledge, she had not received any “negative evaluations” during her decades-long tenure at the appraiser program.

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