Family members of South Dakota's Republican Gov. Kristi Noem came into more than $600,000 from a state relief fund that was boosted by the governor herself to support small businesses struggling under the weight of the pandemic.
According to the Associated Press, a ranch owned by Noem's family benefited from a single relief payment of $500,000. Another family business owned by Noem's two brothers, Arnold Bros. Water Management Inc., took two payments amounting to more than $100,000.
South Dakota's relief program was drummed up last October and originally limited grants to $100,000 per recipient. However, just a month later, Noem raised the cap to $500,000 and tacked on a second round of the program to target businesses affected through the months of September to November.
According to the grant program's records, just 4% of the businesses were eligible to receive state aid, which amounts to 126 businesses total.
Noem reportedly retained part-ownership of twenty-two acres of the ranch's land and received annual rent of $2,200, but the lease expired on Jan 1, about a year after Noem had taken office. "The Governor has no financial interest in Racota Valley and hasn't for years," said her spokesman Ian Fury. Fury maintained that South Dakota's grant program's eligibility requirements were ultimately set by the state's legislature, and carried out by Guidehouse, an outside consulting firm.
In October, as the state's grant program was being developed, Noem directly asked South Dakota's Supreme Court whether lawmakers would be able to benefit from the program, citing "potential conflicts of interest." The Court unanimously ruled that state lawmakers would not be able to benefit from the program, adducing a 2001 court decision that came to a similar conclusion. However, that ruling did not apply to the governor.
Last year, many South Dakota businesses were dissatisfied with the pace at which the program was carried out. The $450 million program was instituted in October and only provided aid to twenty percent of its applicants by December.
The Bureau of Finance and Management did not provide any information regarding when Noem's family businesses submitted their applications, but according to program records, Racota Valley Ranch Partnership received funds on Feb. 19, while Arnold Bros. Water Management Inc., while Arnold Bros. Water Management Inc. received grants on Jan. 6 and Jan. 20.
Last week, Noem attended CPAC and received a standing ovation for attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The governor advocated for a hands-off approach to COVID-19, stressing the need to preserve people's personal liberties.
"I don't know if you agree with me, but Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot," she said. "South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close," she said. "We never instituted a shelter-in-place order. We never mandated that people wear masks. We never even defined what an essential business is."
According to a Statista study as of March 1, South Dakota has the eighth highest COVID fatality rate per capita of any state in the country and the second-highest number of cases per 100,000 residents in the country.