Wednesday, April 13, 2022

South Dakota House votes to impeach attorney general matter heads to Senate for trial

The South Dakota House of Representatives voted to impeach state Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg over a 2020 accident in which Ravnsborg struck and killed a pedestrian on a rural stretch of highway, reported Courthouse News Service.

The 36-31 vote did not comport with a recommendation from the House Select Committee on Investigations against impeachment, which occurred in March in a 6-2 in a party line vote.

The matter moves to the state Senate for trial, where a two-thirds majority will be required for Ravnsborg’s removal. There is a minimum 20-day waiting period until the Senate trial can begin under the state constitution. He is suspended from his duties pending the outcome of the trial.

Ravnsborg has remained in office since the collision despite calls for his resignation, including from Governor Kristi Noem, a fellow Republican. The attorney general pleaded no contest last year to using a mobile electronic device while driving and failing to stay in his lane.

Ravnsborg was driving home from a political fundraiser on the night he struck Joe Boever, who was walking along the shoulder of a U.S. Highway 14 near Highmore, South Dakota. The attorney general has maintained he did not realize he struck a man until he returned to the scene the next day and found his body, according to The Associated Press.

During the Select Committee meetings, law enforcement officials testified Ravnsborg had been distracted and driving on the shoulder of the highway at the time of the collision.

On Monday, Ravnsborg sent a letter to House members claiming Noem had “weaponized” the collision by asking him to resign, South Dakota broadcaster KELO reported. He elected not to so to preserve checks and balances in state government, he said.

“No state has ever impeached an elected official for a traffic accident,” Ravnsborg wrote. “I could not resign then and cannot resign now because the incident did not impede my ability to perform the functions of attorney general including ongoing investigations of the executive office. Knowing Governor Noem could hand-select my replacement, I felt it appropriate to stay in office to maintain checks and balances within the state.”

He added: “It has been 576 days since the accident. I mark it on my calendar each day and reflect. I want to say, ‘I am sorry.’ Every day I think about Joe Boever, a man I had never met, who changed my life forever. I am sorry the family has had to endure this tragedy in so many ways and has been put in the middle of this highly political situation.”

Speaking in favor of impeachment, Rep. Linda K. Duba, a Democrat, blasted Ravnborg’s letter. She noted Ravnsborg had the opportunity to testify in front of the Special Committee under oath but did not, instead sending the letter at “the eleventh hour.”

Duba emphasizing the part of the letter where Ravnsborg wanted to say he was sorry and that Boever had changed his life forever.

“Let’s turn that around. You took Joe Boever’s life. Did you intend to hit him? No. But you did. And that’s what we’re about today and that’s what we need to think about when we push the button.”

Republican members of the House spoke in favor of impeaching Ravnsborg as well.

“The attorney general has broken the law, and as a result of that, one of our citizens has died,” said Rep. Will Mortenson. “Never before in our state’s history has it been that a state official criminally ended the life of one of our citizens and refused to resign from that post. This is a grave and exceptional situation.”

There was no testimony in opposition to the measure.

The difference in the result of the committee and full House votes may be due to concerns voiced by the public to their representatives. Michael Card, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Dakota, said legislators have told him the Ravnsborg investigation is an issue frequently raised to them by their constituents.

“I wasn’t surprised that they would vote to impeach,” Card said in an interview. “I think there is enough concern.”

Also, a pattern of behavior made public last week by South Dakota broadcaster Dakota News Now may have added to the vote to impeach. Video and information obtained via a public records request showed law enforcement had pulled Ravnsborg over at least 25 times before the fatal Sept. 12, 2020, collision.

In more than one incident, Ravnsborg made it known to the officers he was the attorney general. In once such stop, in West Point, Nebraska, he was in a state-owned vehicle bound for Army Reserve duty, in uniform.

“It just fails the smell test,” Card said. “And I suspect that a number of legislators who voted to impeach are thinking he didn’t do a crime that was worthy of going to jail, but he shouldn’t be our attorney general.”

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