South Dakota's top law enforcement official says he is looking into a meeting that The Associated Press reports happened in July of last year among Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, her daughter, top officials and the head of a real estate appraiser certification program.
The AP reports that the governor's daughter, Kassidy Peters, was initially issued a denial for her appraiser license. Months later, however, Peters became a certified residential appraiser. That is where Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg says questions are being raised.
"I have been contacted by concerned citizens and legislators," says Ravnsborg. "I am actively reviewing their concerns, and I will be following the steps prescribed in codified law in relation to those questions."
(A note on Ravnsborg: He recently pleaded no contest to a pair of misdemeanor driving charges for his involvement in a fatal car crash that killed a South Dakotan. That has led to Noem pushing for Ravnsborg to resign from office.)
At the time Peters was denied her license, Sherry Bren had been leading the South Dakota program that certifies, licenses and registers appraisers for nearly 30 years.
Last year, though, Bren says she was called by South Dakota's secretary of labor to talk about her retirement. In a complaint she filed later, Bren, who is 70, said she was given six months to retire because of her age.
Bren later withdrew her age-discrimination complaint against the state in exchange for a $200,000 settlement, which also prevents Bren from disparaging public officials in the state.
The AP asked Noem about the meeting and about Bren's forced retirement. In response, the governor's spokesman accused the AP of attacking Noem politically.
"The Administration has made it clear that it does not see a value to my experience, my involvement in ongoing projects or in a transfer of any of my extensive institutional knowledge and connections," Bren wrote in an email to several appraisers this year.
As part of the settlement of Bren's age-discrimination complaint, the state's Department of Labor and Regulation denies all allegations set forth by Bren.
Appraisers evaluate the worth of real estate before a sale. Every state in the U.S. has a program that regulates the profession. In 1989, Congress passed a banking reform act that required every state to follow a uniform standard of appraisal. Following the 2008 housing crisis, the Dodd-Frank Act added to those standards.
Bren was hired to create the South Dakota program that oversees all aspects of appraiser certification.
"Appraisers weren't generally regulated," Bren says. "This was a very unique system — and still is — that appraisers are regulated on the federal level through state appraiser regulatory agencies."
Bren says she wanted to stay in her role until 2022 in order to establish another program that would help more potential appraisers get certified.
The new program would help satisfy federal requirements for trainees to become licensed or certified appraisers. The state received a federal grant of $120,000 that would encourage appraisers to work with entry-level apprentices to bring new people into the field.
"It's just hard to get those professionals in the very small, rural communities, which is a very big problem, because people still want to purchase and sell property," Bren says. "I would like to say that this is not unique to South Dakota. The shortage is identified across the nation."
In her email to other appraisers, Bren said she would never leave a project unfinished if she had a choice in the matter.
"I sincerely regret that I will not be able to work with you in my former role as Executive Director," Bren wrote in the email.
The governor's office declined to answer South Dakota Public Broadcasting's questions about the situation and recommended that a response come from the Department of Labor and Regulation. That department responded with an email saying it doesn't discuss the specifics of personnel decisions.
Bren said it was not her choice to end her career.
"I was forced to retire," Bren says. "I turned 70 at the time that this happened. I believe that I was perceived as not being able to — being too old to do my job, or something — I don't know what. I really don't know. I wasn't ready to leave. I wanted to leave in a couple of years, but that wasn't my choice."
Nationally, Bren was known as a "remarkable asset" to the appraiser profession. That's what a posting on the website of the Association of Appraiser Regulatory Officials said when Bren left her job.
Joe Ibach is with the organization. He said the association was baffled when Bren's retirement was announced.
"We thought, 'How is that possible?' " Ibach says. "She's done an exceptional job for South Dakota. I still don't understand the reason as to why the state of South Dakota would let such an asset go. It puzzles me."
Bren's exit was noticed by others in the industry, says Jim Park, the executive director of the Appraisal Subcommittee, which was formed as part of a congressional reform act in the late 1980s. It monitors state programs that certify and license appraisers.
"We were shocked," Park says. "Sherry had never mentioned anything about retiring."
Bren was one of the longest-tenured executive directors with any state-based appraisal regulatory program in the country.