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Tennessee Billionaires Fund South Dakota Guard’s Mission To Texas Border

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Governor Noem

A foundation run by Tennessee billionaires is donating an undisclosed amount of money to cover the cost of sending up to 50 South Dakota National Guard troops to the Texas border.  

“Governor (Kristi) Noem welcomes any donations that help alleviate the costs to South Dakota taxpayers,” said spokesman Ian Fury.  

The deployment announcement wasn’t a surprise – Gov. Kristi Noem Tweeted about that on Monday afternoon.  

But the official news release on Tuesday had an unexpected detail: The mission would be funded through a “private donation.” 

The donation is from the Willis and Reba Johnson Foundation, Fury said. He refused to share the amount of the donation, citing alleged security risks.   

The Johnsons are billionaires from Tennessee who have donated at least $1.5 million to conservative politicians and causes across the country, according to Bloomberg and other past reporting.  

Noem’s announcement comes after the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona sent a June 10 letter asking other states to help secure the border.  

Noem agreed to help because South Dakota is impacted by drug and human trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border, Fury said. Noem is also arguing that President Joe Biden is failing to act.  

Secret donation amount  

The donation for the mission is going into the Emergency and Disaster Fund at the Department of Public Safety, Fury said.  

Sharing the amount of the donation is a security risk because it could help bad actors figure out specific operational details, he argued.  

“I’m not going to get into that for security reasons,” Fury said. “You could surmise items like numbers, equipment and things of that nature.” 

Sharing which units are deploying, where exactly they are going, what tasks they will be doing, and which Texas or federal agency will train them would also be a security risk, Fury said.  

The argument that publicizing the donation amount could help reveal specific details and be a security risk is the same argument the South Dakota government made when it refused to share how much taxpayer money was spent on Noem’s security during her out-of-state political travel. 

Legislative committees agreed with that argument when it voted against a bill that would have made public officials’ security costs a public record, like they are in some other states.  

Fury didn’t respond when asked whether Noem knows the Johnson couple and how the donation came to be – whether the family randomly contacted Noem or if the governor had been soliciting donations for the mission.  

He said the couple has never donated to Noem’s campaigns.  

Other details  

Noem sees no legal or ethical problem in letting a private, out-of-state foundation pay for a South Dakota military deployment, Fury said.  

Fury cited South Dakota Codified Law 5-24-12, which says the governor can accept donations to the state “after determining that it is in the best interest of the state to do so” and doesn’t violate any other law.  

South Dakota Codified Law 5-24-12

He also pointed to SDCL 34-48A-36, which says the state can accept donations for “emergency management.”  

The South Dakota Democratic Party criticized the deployment and donation.

"Noem has turned our military into mercenaries. It is morally wrong to deploy troops for political purposes using private funds," it Tweeted.

While the donation is from a private foundation, the troops will still be state employees on a state mission, Fury said. Any healthcare, worker’s compensation and other liability costs would fall on the state.  

The amount of the donation might eventually be revealed by the Legislature or South Dakota Department of Legislative Audit. 

The DLA will examine whether the donation and any other money used during the mission was used correctly when the agency conducts its annual audit of state spending, according to Auditor General Russell Olson.  

Noem or the legislature could also request a specific audit of this mission that would be completed more quickly, Olson said.  

He said audits are public records unless they contain confidential information.  

The mission’s funding will “be part of the typical auditing” Fury echoed. “In addition, we have informed the legislature that this is the way we are proceeding.” 

Fury said Noem’s office alerted legislators about the donation before and after the Tuesday news release was made public.