PIERRE, S.D. — One of South Dakota's top legislators on an armed services committee says the deployment of the state's National Guard to the southern border is appropriate and legal.
Rep. Tony Randolph, a Rapid City Republican who chairs the House Military and Veterans Affairs committee, told Forum News Service in an interview on Friday, July 2, that he'd spoken with Gov. Kristi Noem's office about her plan to dispatch 50 South Dakota National Guard troops to Texas in a response to a request for border patrol resources from Gov. Greg Abbott.
Randolph said he found no impropriety, only messiness on the messaging.
"Could it have been clearer?" he said. "Yes. The information that trickled out to begin with created all the questions."
Noem insists that the deployment was assisted by, but not at the behest of, a $1 million donation from a Tennessee billionaire. Randolph said he believes the donation from the Willis and Reba Johnson's Foundation helped defray costs for the Guard and wasn't the impetus for the decision.
"What they said was, 'we're not sure we can cover the costs of you sending the help,'" Randolph said, paraphrasing conversations between Texas and South Dakota officials. When the donor stepped forward, Noem's team could justify spending taxpayer money on the Guard's deployment.
The foundation is the charitable arm for auto salvage billionaire Willis Johnson, and has made past gifts to Republicans, including Donald Trump.
Randolph said he understands that a hypothetical would be upsetting; for instance, a Democratic Gov. Billie Sutton dispatching the Guard to quell a riotous Tea Party-affiliated group in Wyoming because of a $1 million donation from a San Francisco liberal. But Randolph didn't yet see any clear need for future legislation to prevent conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived, from happening.
He added that he applauds the governor for sending armed personnel to the southern border, which he argued has huge impact on South Dakota in terms of human and drug trafficking.
Controversy and criticism
Noem's announcement sparked a flurry of criticism this week. Initially, she said that a "private donor" would foot the bill to send up to 50 troops from South Dakota 1,200 miles south to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico in response to a request from Abbott.
Critics suggested the move amounted to reckless brinksmanship of a governor's authority over a military force, rendering the ostensible volunteer force under her command answerable to political donors.
When her office revealed later this week the donation amounted to $1 million, which has already been deposited in the Treasury, and came from Johnson, accusations of impropriety only increased.
On Wednesday, June 30, the South Dakota Democratic Party called on Noem to return the cash and apologize to the Guard.
"Not only does it raise ethical questions, but privatized deployments set dangerous precedent for further political use of our National Guard," said a statement signed by the Democratic caucus.
Even the director of the South Dakota National Guard Museum told the Associated Press a private donation funding a deployment "floor[ed]" him.
But officials close to the governor have insisted the deployment was not a quid pro quo response to the GOP mega-donor's $1 million. Instead, the governor used an interstate authority for troop-sharing among governors, used particularly in natural disasters, and the gift was a serendipitous offer.
"The Governor was already planning on sending aid to Texas when the donation was offered," Noem spokesman Ian Fury said in an email to FNS on Thursday, July 1.
In an interview with reporters posted online, Noem acknowledged that Johnson has reached out to her, but said she'd already been planning to send resources anyway, deciding between the state patrol or the Guard.
Under the state's gift-to-government law, Noem can accept gifts "subject to preexisting condition" only when she believes it to be "in the best interest of the state."
Tim Bormann, chief of staff to Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, told FNS Thursday the AG's office saw nothing improper in the gift.
"From the information our office has been provided it appears that the deployment is in response to a request from Texas Governor Greg Abbott and subject to a mutual aid agreement between our states," Bormann said in the email.
South Dakota has, in past years, sent troops to the southern border, and while the request from Abbott asked for "law enforcement," Noem defended her choice of Guard troops in an interview on Thursday morning on the program "Fox and Friends," saying law enforcement would've had a shorter deployment than is allowed with the National Guard.
"It's not going to be over in 14 days. In fact, it's going to be much worse," Noem said.
The rationale sat well with Rep. Randolph, who said the heavy tourist season in South Dakota taxes law enforcement agencies and a deployment from Guardsmen and women offers "mission continuity" over 30 to 60 days, rather than the shorter deployment seen in neighboring state of Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds is sending two dozen highway patrol officers for two weeks.
"The word you could use is 'unprecedented,'" Randolph said. "But it's not to the realm of extremely unprecedented."
Approximately 3,500 guardsmen and women are already on the U.S. border, working under federal authority from the Department of Homeland Security. Abbott's office did not return a request for comment from FNS, but a spokesperson did tell The Washington Post that the South Dakota contingent would be under Abbott's authority.