In Tuesday’s televised debate, both major-party candidates for governor misrepresented past reporting by the Rapid City Journal on the lack of government email transparency in South Dakota.
It started when Noem turned to Sutton during a broad exchange about transparency and said, “Well, I’m not sure Billie’s released his emails. Did you release your emails? I know you brought the legislation, but I’m not sure if you ever …”
“I did,” Sutton interjected.
“You did release all of your emails?” Noem replied.
“I did,” Sutton said. “I released emails without even being asked to, cause I wanted to prove that I do what I say.”’
Moments later, one of the debate’s moderators, KELO TV anchor Don Jorgensen, asked Noem if she had released her own emails.
“I haven’t been asked to release my emails,” Noem said.
Noem was wrong to suggest that Sutton had not released his emails, because he released 373 emails to the Journal last winter, and the Journal published a story in March about the contents of those emails. In 2017, Sutton unsuccessfully proposed legislation classifying government emails as public records in South Dakota.
Sutton’s statement that he released his emails “without even being asked to” was false. His release of emails arose from an interview in October 2017, when the Journal asked him to release emails from his official government account (he has served eight years in the state Legislature). He agreed to release some emails, but it took him nearly four months to select and assemble two weeks’ worth of emails while weeding out emails that he said were subject to legal privacy restrictions preventing their release.
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Wednesday, the Journal asked the Sutton campaign to explain his claim that he had released his emails “without even being asked to.”
“What Senator Sutton meant was that he released emails voluntarily when he was not required to under existing law,” said Sutton’s campaign manager, Suzanne Jones Pranger.
As for Noem, her statement that she had not been asked to release her emails was false. Last fall, after the Journal secured Sutton’s pledge to release some of his emails, the Journal asked all of the other announced candidates for governor to release their emails. Besides Sutton, none complied.
Although the Journal did not pose the question to Noem directly, it did send the question to the then-spokeswoman for Noem’s congressional office, Brittany Comins (who is now working on the Noem campaign), and also to Noem’s campaign manager, Justin Brasell. Both acknowledged the request, but neither supplied any emails.
When asked Wednesday why Noem said she had not been asked to release her emails, Comins said, "She was in the middle of a debate, so I doubt she was thinking about a press request from last winter."
During Tuesday’s debate, Noem, who has served in the U.S. House for years, said the casework her office does for constituents makes many of her congressional emails too private and sensitive to release. But she also said, “You can get a freedom of information request and get almost anything that I do, freely. So that’s not as much of an issue at the federal level as it is at the state level.”
In fact, the federal Freedom of Information Act does not apply to Congress, and it generally applies only to the Executive Branch. Noem's campaign did not immediately respond Wednesday to a Journal request for clarification about Noem's FOIA comment.
When asked during the debate about email transparency at the state level, Noem said, “Absolutely, we can be as much transparent as possible. I have no problem, but I want to protect people’s individual information and victims that might be suffering from some kind of a settlement agreement with the state or something like that. But if there’s a way to be transparent on it, absolutely, I’m always willing to have that discussion.”