This week, South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg is facing a historic impeachment trial for what he did after a car accident in 2020 in which he hit and killed a pedestrian.
Before the two-day trial starts on Tuesday, which is when the state Senate will decide whether or not the first-term Republican attorney general should be found guilty and removed from office:
WHY WAS RAVNSBORG IMPEACHED
In September 2020, he hit and killed 55-year-old Joseph Boever as he walked along the side of a rural freeway.
Ravnsborg told the 911 operator that he hit “something” in the middle of the road. Later, he said he thought he had hit a large animal. He went back to the crash site the next day and said that was the first time he saw Boever’s body.
After a long criminal investigation, Ravnsborg pleaded no contest to two traffic misdemeanors, including changing lanes without permission. Ravnsborg tried to move on from the crash, but Republican Gov. Kristi Noem pushed for him to be fired.
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In April, the House of Representatives removed Ravnsborg from office on two counts: crimes that led to someone’s death and bad behavior at work.
WHAT ARE THE IMPEACHMENT CHARGES?
The main charge is based on the accident and Ravnsborg’s driving record before it.
“The attorney general broke the law, and because of that, one of our citizens died,” Republican Rep. Will Mortenson told the House as he made his case for impeachment. Mortenson said Ravnsborg had a “disturbing pattern” of driving, pointing to the number of traffic tickets and warnings he had gotten.
The cost of Ravnsborg’s bad behavior covers a wide range of things he did.
Lawmakers in the House say Ravnsborg lied to the police when he told a 911 dispatcher that the accident happened “in the middle of the street” and when, in later interviews, criminal investigators said the attorney general wasn’t being easy and wasn’t telling the truth.
The House lawmakers also say Ravnsborg abused his power by putting a press release about the crash on official letterhead and later asking a Division of Criminal Investigation agent what they might find on Ravnsborg’s phone when they look into the crash.
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Ravnsborg has always said that he didn’t do anything wrong and used the Senate trial as a way to “clear his name.”
This week, SD Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg is going to court to face charges of impeachment.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN AT THE IMPEACHMENT TRIAL?
Ravnsborg needs to be convicted by two-thirds of the 35 members of the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans. This could lead to Ravnsborg’s automatic elimination as a lawyer standard. If he is found guilty, senators could also vote with a two-thirds majority to stop him from running for office again.
They will decide this after meeting for two days in the first impeachment trial in the state’s history. It should also give both sides a chance to talk about and look into the details of an event that has been a big deal in state politics for well over a year.
Lawmakers have chosen to move quickly with the trial. The prosecutors for impeachment and Ravnsborg’s defense lawyer each have one hour for a gap statement, four hours for witness testimony, and one hour to wrap up their cases.
“That’s very limited, very rare, and something I’ve never done before,” said Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo, who is leading the prosecution.
He used to work for the criminal prosecution team, but he left before a decision on charges was made.
Vargo and other prosecutors plan to bring in investigators of the crash and former members of the Division of Criminal Investigation to testify in person. The company is supervised by lawyers, so it wasn’t involved in the crash investigation. However, Ravnsborg used the company’s experience when the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation looked into his actions.
Ravnsborg asked one former Department of Criminal Investigation agent about what could be found on his phone during the investigation of the crash, and he asked another about polygraph tests.
Ravnsborg hasn’t said if he’s going to testify or not.
His lawyer, Mike Butler, will not name any witnesses to protect him. He will instead rely on oral arguments and cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses.
Senators could take more time to talk about the articles of impeachment and ask more questions. By the end of the day on Wednesday, they plan to vote on a decision. The Senate will vote on each article of impeachment and on whether or not he should be banned from running for office in the state again.
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WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARD?
Noem, who has worked hard to get Ravnsborg fired, could win if he is found guilty. She said last year that she was “outraged” by the results of the criminal investigation and that Ravnsborg could be held accountable by impeachment.
Noem would name Ravnsborg’s replacement until the person who wins the race for attorney general in November is sworn in. Ravnsborg could have run for office again this year, but he chose not to.
Ravnsborg has said that the governor, who is setting herself up for a possible run for the White House in 2024, pushed for his dismissal in part because he had looked into ethics complaints against Noem. His office may look into whether or not a company with ties to the governor broke rules about how campaign money should be reported.
It’s not clear what effect Ravnsborg’s permanent removal would have on these investigations.
In the meantime, the South Dakota GOP is going to have a meeting in the days after the Senate trial to choose its next candidate for attorney general. David Natvig, one of Ravnsborg’s top assistants, has said that he is interested in the nomination and has presented himself as someone who could carry on Ravnsborg’s work.
Natvig was in charge of the Division of Criminal Investigation, which worked under Ravnsborg.
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But Marty Jackley, who was the attorney general for about ten years before Ravnsborg, may try to get the GOP nomination for his old job. He has the help of Noem and a lot of the people who enforce the law in the state.
On June 25, Republican party delegates from each county will vote on a nominee for attorney general.