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Key official to testify in Noem-daughter licensing inquiry

The ex-state employee is at the center of questions over whether the governor tried to influence her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser license.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem speaking in Dallas on July 11, 2021.Andy Jacobsohn / AFP via Getty Images file

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Lawmakers in South Dakota will hear Tuesday from a former state employee at the center of questions over whether Gov. Kristi Noem used her influence to aid her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser license.

Sherry Bren, the longtime director of the state’s Appraiser Certification Program, will testify before the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee.

It would be the first time that Bren has spoken in depth in public about a meeting in the governor’s mansion last year since The Associated Press first reported on it in September. The Republican governor held the meeting just days after Bren’s agency moved to deny Noem’s daughter, Kassidy Peters, an upgrade to her appraiser license.

Both Bren and Peters attended the meeting. Peters got another opportunity to pursue her license through an agreement signed the week after the meeting.

Noem has denied wrongdoing, casting her actions as an effort to cut red tape to address a shortage of appraisers certified by the state.

Bren has been mostly silent. 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. But her appearance on Tuesday was compelled by subpoena.

The committee’s inquiry has been going on for nearly two months.

In October testimony, Noem’s secretary of labor, Marcia Hultman, described the meeting as innocuous — mostly a policy discussion aimed at changes to the application process for appraiser licenses. She acknowledged that it was uncommon to have an applicant in such a meeting and said there was a “brief discussion at the end” about a plan to allow Peters to fix problems with her application and try again. Hultman excused any appearance of impropriety by saying that details of the agreement with Peters were in place before that meeting.

Noem had echoed a similar defense to reporters, saying that “the decision was already made on her path forward.” She insisted the agreement was not even broached at the meeting and Peters had only given “her personal experiences through the program.”

However, when the committee pressed Hultman’s department to show them a copy of Peters’ agreement, it was revealed that it was not signed until more than a week after the meeting.

Bren also has said she was presented with a letter at the meeting from Peters’ supervisor that slammed the agency’s decision to deny the license.

Bren helped start the state’s Appraiser Certification Program and was its director for nearly three decades. Appraisers describe her as a by-the-books regulator.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, she’s the same for everyone,” said Amy Frink, the vice president of the Professional Appraiser Association of South Dakota, a group that has been critical of changes to the agency since Bren’s departure.

But Noem has implied that Bren was getting in the way of changes she wanted to make as the state saw a shortage of appraisers.