South Dakota AG convicted on 2 impeachment charges, removed

PIERRE, SD (AP) — The South Dakota Senate on Tuesday sentenced Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to two impeachment charges stemming from a fatal 2020 accident, firing him and barring him from future duties in a scathing rebuke that showed that most senators did not believe his account of the accident.

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

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

“There’s no question that was a lie,” said Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the highest-ranking Republican in the chamber. “This person ran over an innocent South Dakota.”

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

“There’s a mic right there, and it’s a damn short walk,” Schoenbeck said.

Convictions required a two-thirds majority in the Senate, controlled 32 to 3 by Republicans. Senators mustered the bare minimum of 24 votes to convict Ravnsborg on the first charge, with some senators saying the two offenses to which he pleaded guilty were not crimes serious enough to warrant impeachment. The charge of embezzlement – ​​Ravnsborg also asked investigators what data could be found on his cell phone, among other things – was accepted 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 done for much of the trial, then writing on a notepad in his lap. He did not respond to questions from reporters as he left the Capitol.

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

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

“It’s just a relief. I’ve been on drugs for almost two years and I feel like I have a weight on my shoulders,” he said.

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

Governor Kristi Noem, who will choose Ravnsborg’s replacement until the candidate elected to replace him in November is sworn in, has called on her Republican colleague to resign shortly after the crash and then pressed lawmakers to pursue impeachment. As the saga dragged on, Noem publicly endorsed Ravnsborg’s predecessor, Republican Marty Jackley, to be elected as his replacement. Noem had no immediate comment on the Senate result.

Ravnsborg argued that the governor, who has positioned himself for a possible White House bid in 2024, pushed for his removal in part because he investigated ethics complaints against Noem.

As the impeachment trial opened on Tuesday, prosecutors posed a question that looms over developments since the September 2020 crash: Did Ravnsborg know he killed a man the night of the crash?

“He absolutely saw the man he punched in the moments that followed,” said Alexis Tracy, the Clay County state attorney who led the prosecution.

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

Prosecutors investigated Ravnsborg’s alleged misrepresentations in the aftermath of the crash, including that he never exceeded the excessive speed limit, that he contacted Boever’s family to offer his condolences, and that he hadn’t checked his phone on his way home. .

The prosecution released a series of video clips during their closing arguments that showed Ravnsborg’s changing account of his use of the phone during interviews with criminal investigators. The attorney general initially denied using his phone while driving, but later admitted he looked at his phone minutes before the crash. As the senators spoke, several noted a reconstruction of the accident which revealed that Ravnsborg’s car had veered completely out of its lane, contrary to its original statement that it was in the middle of the road at the moment of impact.

Ravnsborg solved the criminal case last year pleading no contest to a pair of traffic offences, including illegally changing lanes and using a phone while driving, and was fined by a judge.

The attorney general’s defense asked the senators to consider the implications of the impeachment on the function of state government. Ross Garber, a legal analyst and professor of law at Tulane University who specializes in impeachment proceedings, told senators that impeachment would amount to “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 hit “something,” according to a transcript of his 911 call by the following.. He told the dispatcher it could be a deer or some other animal.

Investigators identified what they believed to be slippages 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 and say, “I didn’t see it”. And they argued that Boever’s face popped 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, serving as impeachment prosecutor, said of Ravnsborg’s statement.

Investigators determined the attorney general walked right past Boever’s body and the flashlight Boever was carrying – still on the next morning – as he looked around the scene the night of the accident.

Ravnsborg said neither he nor the county sheriff who came to the scene knew that Boever’s body was lying a few feet from the sidewalk on the shoulder of the freeway.

“There’s no way to pass without seeing this,” Arnie Rummel, an agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation who led the criminal investigation, said in testimony Tuesday.

Prosecutors also raised an exchange Ravnsborg had with one of his staff members three days after the crash, after he submitted his phones to crash investigators. Ravnsborg questioned a South Dakota Criminal Investigation Division agent about what would turn up during forensic examinations of his cellphones, even though the agency was supposedly not involved in the investigation to avoid disputes. ‘interests.

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

Ravnsborg’s defense attorney argued that the attorney general did nothing wrong. His defense attorney, Mike Butler, described any discrepancy in Ravnsborg’s recollection of that night as due to human error, and the maligned testimony of Rummel, the crash investigator, as an “opinion “Which wouldn’t hold up in court.

During closing arguments, Butler said the criminal prosecution found “no criminal culpability” for Boever’s death and urged senators to refrain from rehashing the matter.

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

Senator Arthur Rusch, a retired judge who said he got to know Ravnsborg when he was a young lawyer practicing at Rusch’s court, was among the senators who did not support impeachment on the first charge, but l did for the second. He said he was embarrassed by Ravnsborg’s actions in questioning Criminal Investigation Division officers about aspects of the case and for issuing a press release on the Attorney General’s stationery.

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