PIERRE, South Dakota. The South Dakota Senate on Tuesday found Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg guilty of two impeachment charges related to the 2020 fatal plane crash, removing him from future office in a scathing rebuke that showed most senators did not believe his story about the crash. .
Ravnsborg, a first-term Republican who only recently announced he would not seek re-election, showed little emotion when senators first convicted him of the crime of causing death. They then issued another guilty verdict on charges of malfeasance, alleging that he had misled investigators and abused his official position.
Ravnsborg told a 911 dispatcher on the night of the crash that he may have hit a deer or other large animal and said he didn’t know he hit the man – 55-year-old Joseph Bover – until he returned to the scene the next day. morning. Criminal investigators said they didn’t believe some of Ravnsborg’s claims, and several senators made it clear they didn’t either.
“There is no doubt that it was a lie,” said Sen. Lee Shenbek, the top Republican in the House. “This man hit an innocent South Dakota.”
Schönbeck also criticized Ravnsborg for refusing to testify in his defense, stating that Ravnsborg should have told “what the hell he was doing” on the night of the crash.
“There’s a microphone right there and it’s a damn short walk,” Schonbeck said.
A guilty verdict required a two-thirds majority in the Senate, controlled by Republicans by a vote of 32 to 3. Senators garnered a minimum of 24 votes to convict Ravnsborg on the first charge, with some senators saying the two misdemeanors he pleaded guilty to, were not serious enough crimes to warrant impeachment. The charge of abuse of power – Ravnsborg also asked investigators what data could be found on his mobile phone, among other things – was approved by 31 votes.
The votes in favor of removing Ravnsborg from future office were unanimous on both counts.
Ravnsborg’s face remained expressionless throughout the voting: he held his hand to his mouth, as he did for most of the process, and then wrote on the pad in his lap. At the exit from the Capitol, he did not answer questions from reporters.
In September, Ravnsborg agreed to an undisclosed agreement with Bover’s widow.
Nick Nemec, Bower’s cousin who was a constant supporter of Ravnsborg’s harsh punishment, said the vote was “an excuse”.
“It’s just a relief. It’s been almost two years since it was under the influence of drugs and I just feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” he said.
Ravnsborg became the first official to be impeached and convicted in South Dakota history.
Gov. Kristi Noem, who will choose Ravnsborg’s replacement until the candidate elected to replace him in November is sworn in, called on her Republican counterpart to step down shortly after the collapse and later demanded lawmakers seek impeachment. As the saga dragged on, Noem publicly endorsed Ravnsborg’s predecessor, Republican Marty Jackley, to be elected as his replacement.
The governor celebrated the impeachment conviction on Twitter, saying it lifted “a black cloud over the attorney general’s office.”
“It’s time to move on and start rebuilding confidence in the office,” she said, but did not specify who she would choose for the interim position.
Ravnsborg argued that the governor, who was preparing for a possible 2024 White House candidacy, pushed for his removal in part because he was investigating ethics complaints against Noem.
As the impeachment trial began on Tuesday, prosecutors asked a question that has loomed over events since the September 2020 clash: Did Ravnsborg know he had killed the man on the night of the crash?
“He clearly saw the man he hit in moments,” said Alexis Tracey, the Clay State Attorney who led the prosecution.
Prosecutors also told senators that Ravnsborg used his title to “set the tone and gain influence” after the plane crash, even though he allegedly made “false statements and outright lies” to plane crash investigators. The prosecution played a montage of audio clips of Ravnsborg identifying himself as Attorney General.
Prosecutors investigated Ravnsborg’s alleged false claims after the accident, including that he never exceeded the speed limit, that he reached out to Bover’s family to offer his condolences, and that he did not look through his phone on the way home. .
The prosecution played a series of video clips during their closing arguments that showed Ravnsborg changing his phone readings during interrogations with criminal investigators. The Attorney General at first bluntly denied using his phone while driving, but then admitted to looking at his phone minutes before the accident. When it came time for the senators to speak, some noted the reenactment of the crash, which showed that Ravnsborg’s car had veered completely out of its lane, contrary to his original claim that he was in the middle of the road at the time of the impact.
Ravnsborg settled a criminal case last year without citing a couple of traffic violations, including illegal lane changes and using a phone while driving, and was fined by a judge.
The attorney general’s defense has asked senators to consider the implications of impeachment for the function of state government. Ross Garber, a legal analyst and law professor at Tulane University who specializes in impeachment proceedings, told senators that impeachment would “destroy the will of the voters.”
Ravnsborg was driving home from a political fundraiser after dark on September 12, 2020 on a state highway in central South Dakota when his car hit “something,” according to a transcript of his 911 call afterward. He told the dispatcher that it could have been a deer or some other animal.
Investigators identified what they believed were slips of the tongue in Ravnsborg’s statements, such as when he said he turned around at the scene and “saw him” before quickly correcting himself and saying, “I didn’t see him.” And they claimed that Bever’s face came out of the windshield of Ravnsborg because his glasses were found in the car.
“We’ve heard the best lies from 5-year-olds,” Pennington County State Attorney Mark Vargo, who is acting as impeachment prosecutor, said of Ravnsborg’s statement.
Investigators determined that the Attorney General walked past Bover’s body and Bover’s flashlight, which was still on the next morning, when he was inspecting the scene on the night of the crash.
Ravnsborg said that neither he nor the county sheriff who arrived on the scene knew that Bover’s body lay just a few feet from the pavement on the side of the highway.
“You can’t walk past without seeing this,” Arnie Rummel, an agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation who led the criminal investigation, said Tuesday.
Prosecutors also raised an issue Ravnsborg had with one of his employees three days after the crash, after he handed over his phones to investigators. Ravnsborg questioned a South Dakota CID agent about what would be found during a forensic examination of his mobile phones, although it was assumed that the agency would not be involved in the investigation to avoid a conflict of interest.
“We shouldn’t have interfered,” now-retired agent Brent Gromer said, describing why the exchange made him uncomfortable.
Ravnsborg’s lawyer argued that the Attorney General had done nothing nefarious. His lawyer, Mike Butler, described any discrepancies in Ravnsborg’s recollection of that night as the result of human error, and called the disparaging testimony of Rummel, the accident investigator, an “opinion” that would not be confirmed in court.
During the closing debate, Butler stated that the prosecution did not find “criminal guilt” in Bower’s death and urged senators to refrain from repeating the case.
“No amount of fire and brimstone changes that fact,” he said.
Senator Arthur Rush, a retired judge who said he met Ravnsborg when he was a young lawyer practicing at Rush’s court, was among the senators who did not support impeachment on the first charge, but did on the second. He said he was concerned about Ravnsborg’s actions in questioning CID agents on aspects of the case and issuing a press release about the Attorney General’s office supplies.