South Dakota AG Ravnsborg impeached on 36-31 vote, immediately suspended from duties
As the process of impeachment and potential removal from office continues, the adopted articles of impeachment will be served upon Ravnsborg, which will trigger a 20-day waiting period before the
PIERRE, SD — No state has ever impeached an elected official for a traffic accident, South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg wrote in a letter addressed to the South Dakota House of Representatives just 13 hours before the chamber met to determine his fate.
The South Dakota House of Representatives voted Tuesday to impeach Jason Ravnsborg on two separate articles of impeachment.
In a 36-31 vote, the House decided to impeach the attorney general both for crimes and malfeasance in office.
The articles of impeachment, filed Tuesday morning by Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, alleged that Ravnsborg, acting as an officer of the state, committed misdemeanor crimes and other malfeasance by making misrepresentations and misstatements to law enforcement and the public while misusing the "assets of his office."
The allegations in House Resolution 7002, the formal title for the articles of impeachment, referred to Ravnsborg's role before, during and after the Sep. 12, 2020, crash in which he struck and killed Joe Boever, a pedestrian walking along a highway at night.
“It was super close and I had anticipated that, but I think that we did the right thing,” said Rep. Jamie Smith, D-Sioux Falls, who also serves as the House Minority Leader. “I think sending it over to the Senate for the first real trial that we’ll have involving this matter is important. I think the people of South Dakota expected us to do this today, and it was successful.”
Gov. Kristi Noem, who had previously called on Ravnsborg to resign and endorsed his primary election opponent, took to Twitter nearly an hour after the impeachment passed the House.
“Today, the House of Representatives did the right thing for the people of South Dakota and for Joe Boever's family,” Noem said.
‘On duty 24 hours a day’
Shortly after 11 a.m., when House Speaker Rep. Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham, gaveled the House of Representatives in for the day, a motion to move HR 7002 to the top of the docket was quickly approved on a 51-16 vote.
From there, eight Representatives gave nine speeches — including one attempt to amend the resolution — that hinged largely on two areas lawmakers questioned from the House Select Committee on Investigations majority report, which recommended the full House chamber do not impeach Ravnsborg.
The majority report’s recommendation claimed that because Ravnsborg was returning from a campaign event, and not an official duty of his office, he was not acting by virtue of his office, and therefore should not be impeached for crimes or misdemeanors in office.
“This notion of being in office: Was he in official duty as the AG? … Law enforcement is on duty 24 hrs a day,” said Rep. Tim Goodwin, R-Rapid City. “This is the No. 1 law enforcement officer in the state, and we’re using a clause that he wasn’t on duty? He’s on duty every day. The people voted him in to be on duty every day.”
Goodwin argued that, on the night of the crash, Ravnsborg’s use of a state cell phone and his identifying himself as the attorney general to a 911 operator demonstrated he was on duty.
“He even thinks he’s on duty when he’s going to drill,” Goodwin said, referring to a traffic stop where Ravnsborg identified himself as the attorney general on his way to his duties with the U.S. Army Reserves. “I think it’s crystal clear that the attorney general is on duty 24 hours a day. The attorney general was on duty that night when he hit Joe Boever.”
Rep. Ryan Cwach, D-Yankton, who served on the House Select Committee, tore into Ravnsborg’s conduct in the days, weeks, months and years following the crash — specifically a Sep. 14, 2020, press release Ravnsborg issued.
“First, I want to point out that this is on the Attorney General’s official letterhead, yet the majority report of the Select Committee concluded that the AG was not in office at the time. Less than 48 hours after Mr. Boever’s death, the AG is using his official letterhead to explain himself,” Cwach pointed out. “Regardless of our station in life we all have a duty of honesty and fair dealing toward each other, but this duty is certainly heightened when placed in a position of public trust.”
In the letter Cwach referred to, which he provided to lawmakers to reference, Ravnsborg claims he is giving a full and factual account of the events of the crash. Cwach said many of the letter’s descriptions of those events are now known to be false.
“In paragraph 3, he states at no time did I suspect I’d been in an accident with a person, but to the dispatcher, the AG refuses to confirm that he hit a deer when asked,” Cwach said. “... He states the accident occurred on the roadway. We now know this is not true.”
Cwach called Ravnsborg’s press release “completely inappropriate,” as Ravnsborg knew it was released before he had been fully interrogated by investigators.
“The attorney general used the privileges of his office to learn about how the investigation would be conducted. … He had a duty to completely wall himself from the investigation — including from the people in his office,” Cwach said. “... Based on the totality of the circumstance, I think it's reasonable to conclude that the criminal act that led to Mr. Boever’s death, albeit a Class 2 misdemeanor, and his subsequent actions are grounds for the attorney general’s impeachment.”
Reps. Cwach, Linda Duba, D-Sioux Falls; Mary Fitzgerald, R-Spearfish; Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade; Mortenson and Nancy York, R-Watertown, all spoke in favor of impeachment. Rep. Fred Deutsch, R-Florence, introduced an amendment to remove references to malfeasance, which failed.
Lawmakers were set in their decision
Despite hearing nearly an hour of lawmakers speak in favor of impeaching Ravnsborg from office, no legislators stood to voice their opposition to HR 7002.
“I wasn't quite sure why there were no opposition speeches,” Smith said.
His theory was that no speech, no matter how fierce, would be enough to convince any Representative to change their mind.
“I think there were a lot of people of the mindset that nobody’s minds were going to be changed up today by any of the debate. I think people had come to their decisions based upon their studies of the evidence,” Smith said. “I think that the folks against (impeachment) understood that the feelings are quite strong on both sides.”
Despite a letter from Ravnsborg to members of the House distributed just before 10 p.m. Monday, Duba said in a speech to the full House that it wasn’t going to change her mind.
“I took the time to read every piece of evidence, listen to every interview, watch the videos, again. Then last night at 9:42 p.m., we get a letter from the attorney general … and he said ‘I’m trying to respect the process,’” Duba said. “He had the opportunity, because the Select Committee invited him. He had the opportunity to come and testify under oath. He did not do that.”
Duba said she was offended by the last-minute effort to win over lawmakers.
“At the 11th hour, he sends us a letter. There were many errors in that letter, if you took the time to read it. … I was offended by the letter. There were things in there that were shocking to me,” Duba said. “You took Joe Boever’s life. Did you intend to hit him? No, but you did. That’s what we need to think about when we push that button.”
Smith said he would echo what Duba had to say, adding he wishes Ravnsborg would have elected to speak to the Select Committee during their investigation.
“I really wish, when given the opportunity to speak to the Select Committee, that he would’ve chosen to come in and speak to us there, so we could’ve asked him the question we wanted to ask. He’ll have that opportunity in the Senate,” Smith said.
Suspended pending trial
According Article 16 of South Dakota’s Constitution, any state officer impeached shall “exercise the duties of his office after he shall have been impeached and before his acquittal.” Following the certification of Tuesday’s vote, Ravnsborg was immediately suspended from his duties as the Attorney General.
As the process of impeachment and potential removal from office continues, the adopted articles of impeachment will be served upon Ravnsborg, which will trigger a 20-day waiting period before the Senate can begin a trial.
If removed from office, Noem would be given the opportunity to appoint a replacement.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Ravnsborg had not issued a statement indicating his intentions to continue running as a candidate for attorney general. According to the Secretary of State’s office, he could be nominated as a candidate during the party’s convention, which will be held from June 23-25 in Watertown.