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Experts Say Private National Guard Donation Raises Legal, Ethical Issues

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Governor Noem

Governor Kristi Noem is gaining national attention for accepting a $1 million donation to help fund the South Dakota National Guard’s deployment to the Texas border with Mexico.   

Experts say the unusual -- if not unprecedented -- decision raises questions about the law, transparency, and influence of money in political and military decisions.   

The donation was made by Willis Johnson, a billionaire from Tennessee who donates to conservative causes across the country.   

Ian Fury, spokesman for Noem, initially cited “security reasons” in refusing to share the donation amount. He later confirmed the number after multiple lawmakers shared it with the media.  

Fury still won’t say whether the total cost of the deployment is more or less than the $1 million donation. But he said Johnson reached out to the governor’s office with the offer, and that Johnson hasn’t donated to Noem’s past campaigns.   

Noem and her staff found no legal or ethical problem with the donation, Fury said.  

Patrick Garry, a professor at the University of South Dakota School of Law, agreed that nothing in state law prevents the donation. But he said it would be illegal if Johnson “instigated and directed” the mission. 

“If a private party could dictate state action and state policy that would be very problematic. But can someone donate after the fact? Then yes, of course,” Garry said.  

Dwight Stirling is a law professor, expert on the history of the National Guard and reserve military lawyer in the California Guard. He said the donation goes against state and federal law.   

The donation raises issues beyond the law, Stirling said.  

“If we allow a private citizen to donate money for a particular operation or mission, then it looks like those soldiers are working for the billionaire or for the donor and that puts the chain of command in doubt and so what that really does is raises the question about the whole legitimacy of that mission,” he said.  

Several South Dakota experts spoke with the New York Times about the donation.  

Neil Fulton is the dean of the law school and was chief of staff to Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican, when Rounds was the governor. Fulton said other private citizens have donated to the South Dakota government but it’s usually for projects like construction, not government operations such as a military deployment.  

“I don’t have a clue if it’s legal,” said Roger Tellinghuisen, a former Republican attorney general.  

The South Dakota National Guard has not announced when the troops will depart or any other details about the mission.