South Dakota Attorney General Convicted of 2 Counts of Impeachment, Retired

PETER, SD — The South Dakota Senate on Tuesday convicted Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg of two counts of impeachment stemming from a fatal 2020 crash, removing him from office and barring him from future office in a stinging rebuke that showed most senators did not believe his version of the accident

Ravnsborg, a first-term Republican who recently announced he would not seek re-election, showed little emotion when senators first convicted him of committing a crime that caused the death of a person. They then returned another guilty verdict on an embezzlement charge alleging that he misled investigators and abused his charge.

Ravnsborg told a 911 dispatcher the night of the crash that it could have hit a deer or other large animal and said he didn’t know he hit a man, 55-year-old Joseph Boever, until he returned to the scene the next . Morning. Criminal investigators said they didn’t believe some of Ravnsborg’s statements, and several senators made it clear that they didn’t either.

“There is no question that it was a lie,” said Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the ranking Republican in the chamber. “This person ran over an innocent man from South Dakota.”

Schoenbeck also criticized Ravnsborg for refusing to testify in her own defense, saying that Ravnsborg should have shared “what the hell she was doing” the night of the accident.

“There’s a microphone right there, and that’s a very short walk,” Schoenbeck said.

The convictions required a two-thirds majority in the Senate, controlled 32-3 by Republicans. Senators mustered the minimum 24 votes to convict Ravnsborg on the first count, with some senators saying the two misdemeanors he pleaded guilty to were not crimes serious enough to warrant impeachment. The embezzlement charge (Ravnsborg also asked investigators what data could be found on his cell phone, among other things) passed with 31 votes.

The votes to ban Ravnsborg from future office, taken in both cases, were unanimous.

Ravnsborg’s face showed little emotion during the voting, covering her mouth with her hand as she had for much of the trial, then writing on a notepad in her lap. He did not respond to reporters’ questions as he left the Capitol.

Ravnsborg in September agreed to an undisclosed settlement with Boever’s widow.

Nick Nemec, Boever’s cousin who has been a consistent advocate of harsh punishment for Ravnsborg, said the votes were “vindication.”

“It’s just a relief. It’s been almost two years since this has drugs in it and it feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” she said.

Ravnsborg is the first official to be charged and convicted in South Dakota history.

Gov. Kristi Noem, who will choose Ravnsborg’s replacement until the candidate chosen to replace him in November is sworn in, called on her Republican colleague to resign shortly after the crash and then pressed lawmakers to seek impeachment. As the saga progressed, Noem publicly endorsed Ravnsborg’s predecessor, Republican Marty Jackley, to be chosen as her replacement.

The governor celebrated the impeachment conviction on Twitter, saying it had lifted “the dark cloud over the Attorney General’s office.”

“Now is the time to move on and start to restore confidence in the office,” he said, but gave no indication as to who he will pick for the interim job.

Ravnsborg has argued that the governor, who has positioned herself for a possible White House bid in 2024, pushed for her removal in part because she had investigated ethics complaints against Noem.

As the impeachment trial opened Tuesday, prosecutors answered a question that has been around since the September 2020 collision: Did Ravnsborg know he killed a man the night of the crash?

“He absolutely saw the man he hit in the moments afterward,” said Alexis Tracy, the Clay County state’s attorney who led the prosecution.

Prosecutors also told senators that Ravnsborg had used his title “to set the tone and gain influence” after the crash, even as he allegedly made “misstatements and outright lies” to crash investigators. The prosecution played a montage of audio clips of Ravnsborg referring to himself as the attorney general.

Prosecutors investigated Ravnsborg’s alleged misstatements during the crash’s aftermath, including that he never drove excessively over the speed limit, that he had contacted Boever’s family to offer his condolences and that he had not been looking at his phone while driving. to home. .

The prosecution played a series of video clips during their closing arguments showing Ravnsborg’s changing account of using her phone during interviews with criminal investigators. At first, the attorney general strongly denied that he had been using his phone while he was driving, but later acknowledged that he had been looking at his phone minutes before the accident. When it came time for the senators to speak, several noted an accident reconstruction that found Ravnsborg’s car had drifted completely out of its lane, in contrast to his initial statement that he was in the middle of the road at the time of the crash. impact.

Ravnsborg settled the criminal case last year by failing to contest a pair of minor traffic offenses, including an illegal lane change and using a phone while driving, and was fined by a judge.

The attorney general’s defense asked senators to consider the implications of impeachment on the role of state government. Ross Garber, a legal analyst and law professor at Tulane University who specializes in impeachment proceedings, told senators impeaching would “undo the will of the voters.”

Ravnsborg was driving home from a political fundraiser after dark on Sept. 12, 2020, on a state highway in central South Dakota when her car hit “something,” according to a transcript of her subsequent 911 call. She told the dispatcher that he could have been a deer or another animal.

Investigators identified what they thought were errors in Ravnsborg’s statements, such as when he said he turned around at the scene of the crash and “saw it” before quickly correcting himself to say, “I didn’t see it.” And they contended that Boever’s face had come out through Ravnsborg’s windshield because his glasses were found in the car.

“We’ve heard better lies from 5-year-olds,” Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo, acting as impeachment prosecutor, said of Ravnsborg’s plea.

Investigators determined that the attorney general walked past Boever’s body and the flashlight Boever was carrying, still lit the next morning, while looking around the scene the night of the crash.

Ravnsborg said neither he nor the county sheriff who arrived at the scene knew Boever’s body lay just a few feet off the pavement on the shoulder of the road.

“There’s no way you can get by without seeing that,” Arnie Rummel, an agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation who led the criminal investigation, said in his testimony Tuesday.

Prosecutors also cited an exchange Ravnsborg had with one of his staff members three days after the crash, after he turned over his phones to crash investigators. Ravnsborg questioned an agent from the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation about what would be found during forensic examinations of his cell phones, although the agency was not supposed to be involved in the investigation to avoid conflicts of interest.

“We weren’t supposed to be involved,” now-retired agent Brent Gromer said as he described why the trade made him uncomfortable.

Ravnsborg’s defense attorney maintained that the attorney general had done nothing nefarious. His defense attorney, Mike Butler, described any discrepancies in Ravnsborg’s recollection of that night as the result of human error and dismissed the testimony of Rummel, the accident investigator, as an “opinion” that would not stand up in a court of law. .

During closing arguments, Butler stated that the criminal prosecution found no “criminal culpability” for Boever’s death and urged senators to refrain from repeating that case.

“No amount of fire and brimstone changes that given fact,” he said.

Sen. Arthur Rusch, a retired judge who said he knew Ravnsborg as a young lawyer practicing on Rusch’s court, was among the senators who did not support impeachment on the first charge but did support the second. He said he was upset by Ravnsborg’s actions in questioning Criminal Investigation Division officers about aspects of the case and issuing a press release on attorney general stationery.

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