PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota Senate on Tuesday convicted Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg of two impeachment charges stemming from a 2020 fatal accident, removing and barring him from future office in a stinging rebuke that showed most senators didn’t believe his account of the crash.
Ravnsborg, a first-term Republican who only recently announced he wouldn't seek reelection, showed little emotion as senators convicted him first of committing a crime that caused someone's death. They then delivered another guilty verdict on a malfeasance charge that alleged he misled investigators and misused his office.
Ravnsborg told a 911 dispatcher the night of the crash that he might have struck a deer or other large animal, and has said he didn’t know he struck 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 clear they didn't either.
“There's no question that was a lie,” said Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the chamber's top-ranking Republican. “This person ran down an innocent South Dakotan.”
Schoenbeck also criticized Ravnsborg for declining to testify in his own defense, saying Ravnsborg should have shared “what the hell he was doing” the night of the crash.
“There's a mic right there, and that's a damn short walk," Schoenbeck said.
The convictions required a two-thirds majority in the Senate, controlled 32-3 by Republicans. Senators mustered the bare minimum 24 votes to convict Ravnsborg on the first charge, with some senators saying the two misdemeanors he pleaded guilty to weren't serious enough crimes to warrant impeachment. The malfeasance charge — Ravnsborg also asked investigators what data could be found on his cellphone, among other things — sailed through with 31 votes.
Votes to bar Ravnsborg from future office, taken on both counts, were unanimous.
Ravnsborg’s face showed little emotion throughout the votes, holding his hand over his mouth as he had for much of the trial, then writing on a notepad in his lap. He did not answer questions from reporters as he exited the Capitol.
Ravnsborg in September agreed to an undisclosed settlement with Boever’s widow.
Nick Nemec, Boever’s cousin who has been a constant advocate for a severe punishment for Ravnsborg, said the votes were “vindication.”
“It’s just a relief. It’s been nearly two years that this has drug on and it just feels like a weight off my shoulders,” he said.
Ravnsborg is the first official to be impeached and convicted in South Dakota history.
Gov. Kristi Noem, who will pick Ravnsborg's replacement until the candidate elected to replace him in November is sworn in, called for her fellow Republican to resign soon after the crash and later pressed lawmakers to pursue impeachment. As the saga dragged on, Noem publicly endorsed Ravnsborg’s predecessor, Republican Marty Jackley, for election as his replacement. Noem made no immediate comment on the Senate outcome.
Ravnsborg has argued that the governor, who has positioned herself for a possible 2024 White House bid, pushed for his removal in part because he had investigated ethics complaints against Noem.
As the impeachment trial opened Tuesday, prosecutors drove at a question that has hung over developments since the September 2020 crash: Did Ravnsborg know he killed a man the night of the crash?
“He absolutely saw the man that he struck in the moments after,” 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” in the aftermath of the crash, even as he allegedly made “misstatements and outright lies” to the crash investigators. The prosecution played a montage of audio clips of Ravnsborg referring to himself as the attorney general.
Prosecuting attorneys probed Ravnsborg's alleged misstatements during the aftermath of the crash, including that he never drove excessively over the speed limit, that he had reached out to Boever’s family to offer his condolence, and that he had not been browsing his phone during his drive home.
The prosecution played a series of video clips during their closing arguments that showed Ravnsborg's shifting account of his phone use during interviews with criminal investigators. The attorney general at first outright denied he had been using his phone while driving, but then acknowledged he had been looking at his phone minutes before the crash. When it was time for senators to speak, several noted an accident reconstruction that found Ravnsborg's car had veered entirely out of its lane, in contrast to his initial statement that he was in the middle of the road at the time of impact.
Ravnsborg resolved the criminal case last year by pleading no contest to a pair of traffic misdemeanors, including making 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 function of state government. Ross Garber, a legal analyst and law professor at Tulane University who specializes in impeachment proceedings, told senators to impeach would be “undoing 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 his car struck “something,” according to a transcript of his 911 call afterward. He told the dispatcher it might have been a deer or other animal.
Investigators identified what they thought were slips in Ravnsborg’s statements, such as when he said he turned around at the accident scene and “saw him” before quickly correcting himself and saying: “I didn’t see him.” And they contended that Boever’s face had come 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 an impeachment prosecutor, said of Ravnsborg's statement.
Investigators had determined the attorney general walked right past Boever’s body and the flashlight Boever had been carrying — still illuminated the next morning — as he looked around the scene the night of the crash.
Ravnsborg said neither he nor the county sheriff who came to the scene knew that Boever's body was lying just feet from the pavement on the highway shoulder.
“There isn’t any way you can go by without seeing that,” Arnie Rummel, an agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation who led the criminal probe, said in testimony Tuesday.
Prosecutors also raised an exchange that Ravnsborg had with one of his staff members three days following the crash, after he had submitted his phones to crash investigators. Ravnsborg questioned an agent in the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation about what would turn up during forensic exams of his cellphones, even though the agency was supposed to have no part in the investigation to avoid conflicts of interest.
“We were not supposed to be involved,” the now-retired agent, Brent Gromer, said as he described why the exchange made him uncomfortable.
Ravnsborg's defense attorney contended that the attorney general had done nothing nefarious. His defense attorney, Mike Butler, described any discrepancies in Ravnsborg's memory of that night as owing to human error, and disparaged testimony from Rummel, the crash investigator, as “opinion” that would not hold 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 rehashing that case.
“No amount of fire and brimstone changes that given fact,” he said.
Sen. Arthur Rusch, a retired judge who said he had gotten to know Ravnsborg when he was a young attorney practicing in Rusch’s court, was among senators who didn’t support impeachment on the first charge, but did on the second. He said he was bothered by Ravnsborg’s actions in questioning Division of Criminal Investigation agents on aspects of the case and for issuing a press release on attorney general stationery.
Stephen Groves, The Associated Press