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Promo video for Texas dental practice poses new ethics issue for Noem

Sitting in front of a camera for a highly produced, well-lit vertical video with the kind of caption made to watch on mute while you’re scrolling through social media, a patient for SmileTexas near Houston tells viewers about traveling from out of state to fix her teeth.

The patient, whose teeth had needed to be addressed for years after a biking accident, says in the video that she started to cry when she saw her new smile.

“I love my new family at Smile Texas! The video says it all, and I am so grateful for their help fixing my smile for me,” reads a caption for the video post, shared on several social media platforms.

It could have been a testimonial from any one of SmileTexas’s patients, who include a celebrity chef, influencers, pageant contestants, a professional athlete and a reality star, all of whom have also appeared in promotional content for the practice.

But the patient in the latest testimonial was Kristi L. Noem, the Republican governor of South Dakota, who is considered a potential running mate for former president Donald Trump in 2024.

“This gracious leading lady @govkristinoem just received an executive, feminine, beautiful smile here at Smile Texas,” Bret Davis, the dentist who worked on Noem, wrote in an Instagram post. “I’ll be posting later how we achieved this smile on this gracious, calm, and courageous patriot!”

The video, posted on the governor’s social media accounts this past week, has led to a firestorm of criticism, a lawsuit and a potential ethics inquiry questioning whether she participated in an undisclosed advertisement or used state resources.

Two spokespeople for Noem did not respond to requests for comment.

The practice, more than 1,000 miles from the South Dakota governor’s mansion in Pierre, regularly works with influencer types, many of whom travel from out of state to fix their smile.

It focuses on cosmetic dentistry and dental implants, and boasts an in-house pianist and a dedicated filming room. It also promotes travel to the practice, listing local lodging and taxi services on its website.

Federal Election Commission data shows that two dentists pictured with Noem, including Davis, have donated in support of Republican political candidates, including Trump, over the years.

Noem’s promotion of medical tourism, without properly disclosing it in the ad’s caption or video, is the target of a recent lawsuit from the nonprofit Travelers United. It’s not clear whether Noem was compensated in any way for the services she received in Texas.

Lauren Wolfe, counsel for Travelers United, which has pursued other cases related to travel influencers, said that if the governor “was able to prove with basic receipt … that she paid full price for these services, we would be happy to drop the case.”

Alexandra Roberts, professor at Northeastern University School of Law, noted that the Federal Trade Commission has been aggressively messaging “about the requirement to disclose any kind of material benefit” for social media influencers.

“They’ve got everything about what kind of hashtags [to use] and where the hashtags go,” she said. “And they’ve sent out a ton of warning letters, both to influencers and to the companies that are paying the influencers.”

There’s also an effort brewing in the South Dakota Capitol to launch an inquiry into the governor’s trip.

South Dakota state Sen. Reynold Nesiba (D) asked the Republican co-chairs of the legislature’s Government Operations & Audit Committee to put the issue on the next meeting agenda in July.

Nesiba said he has questions about whether public funds were used for her trip to Texas. He also questioned whether the trip was an attempt to appeal to Trump, who has publicly praised allies whose appearance is straight out of “central casting.”

“It just seems like such a well-timed political stunt to raise your national profile and to get the former president’s attention. The whole thing seems and feels like a political move to try to increase her odds of getting the nomination to be the vice president of the United States,” Nesiba said.

But there’s been mixed interest among members of the committee to pursue the issue, he said.

This isn’t the first time the committee has been asked to look into Noem’s behavior in office.

The committee was responsible for a legislative report finding that Noem’s daughter received preferential treatment when she applied for her real estate appraiser’s license in 2020.

Nesiba said that in addition to raising questions about the use of public funds, the governor’s trip to Texas for dental work stands in contrast to her efforts to bring workers to South Dakota — including starring in recurring ads where she fills in for various vacant jobs to show that they’re hiring in the state.

“One of the jobs that she’s dressed up as is a dental hygienist, telling people to come to South Dakota because we have these dental openings. And then here she is going to Texas to do some dental work. I just found it just disappointing,” Nesiba said, adding that dentists in South Dakota have expressed anger over Noem’s Texas video.

Since posting the SmileTexas video, the governor has posted two iPhone-style videos to her social media accounts promoting businesses in South Dakota.

At an orthotics store in Rapid City, with a bag in hand and employees on each side, the governor says the store built her new shoe inserts, adding: “I’m going to be perfect. I’m going to be like Bionic Woman now.”

Posing with coffee shop owners in Spearfish, Noem says: “This coffee shop is amazing. … You will enjoy it. They love America.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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