PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg lied to investigators and abused the power of his office after he struck and killed a pedestrian, prosecutors argued Tuesday at the opening of an impeachment trial that could remove him from office.
Ravnsborg’s attorneys countered that such an action would improperly undo the will of voters for what he has maintained was an accident. He has insisted that he did not realize he struck and killed pedestrian Joseph Boever until he returned to the crash site the next day and discovered the 55-year-old’s body. Ravnsborg has said he first believed he hit a deer or large animal.
Ravnsborg, a Republican who only recently announced he wouldn’t seek a second term, faces two charges in the state’s first-ever impeachment trial. Criminal investigators, some lawmakers and the victim’s family questioned Ravnsborg’s truthfulness over his actions following the 2020 crash. Senators may also vote on whether Ravnsborg should be barred from holding future office.
Votes could come as early as Tuesday evening. The outcome will close a chapter that has roiled state politics, pitting Republican Gov. Kristi Noem against Ravnsborg and some in her own party who objected to her aggressive pursuit of his removal.
As the impeachment trial opened Tuesday, prosecutors drove at a question that has hung over developments since the September 2020 crash: Did Ravnsborg know he killed a man the night of the crash?
“He absolutely saw the man that he struck in the moments after,” said Alexis Tracy, the Clay County state’s attorney who is leading the prosecution.
Prosecutors also told senators that Ravnsborg had used his title “to set the tone and gain influence” in the aftermath of the crash, even as he allegedly made “misstatements and outright lies” to the crash investigators. The prosecution played a montage of audio clips of Ravnsborg referring to himself as the attorney general.
As they questioned crash investigators, prosecuting attorneys probed Ravnsborg’s alleged misstatements during the aftermath of the crash, including that he never drove excessively over the speed limit, that he had reached out to Boever’s family to offer his condolence, and that he had not been browsing his phone during his drive home.
The prosecution played a series of video clips during their closing arguments that showed Ravnsborg’s shifting account of his phone use during interviews with criminal investigators. The attorney general at first outright denied he had been using his phone while driving, but then acknowledged he had been looking at his phone minutes before the crash.
Ravnsborg has maintained that he did nothing wrong and cast the impeachment trial as a chance to clear himself. He resolved the criminal case last year by pleading no contest to a pair of traffic misdemeanors, including making an illegal lane change and using a phone while driving, and was fined by a judge.
He appeared in the Senate chamber Tuesday but did not testify. His defense attorney answered senators’ questions.
The attorney general’s defense focused its arguments on the implications of impeachment during opening statements Tuesday, imploring lawmakers to consider the implications of their decision on the function of state government. Ravnsborg tapped Ross Garber, a legal analyst and law professor at Tulane University who specializes in impeachment proceedings.
“This is undoing the will of the voters,” Garber told the Senate. “Make no mistake, that’s what you’re considering doing.”
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 struck “something,” according to a transcript of his 911 call afterward. He later said it might have been a deer or other animal.
Investigators identified what they thought were slips in Ravnsborg’s statements, such as when he said he turned around at the accident scene and “saw him” before quickly correcting himself and saying: “I didn’t see him.” And they contended that Boever’s face had come 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, who was acting as an impeachment prosecutor, said of Ravnsborg’s statement.
Investigators had determined the attorney general walked right past Boever’s body and the flashlight Boever had been carrying — still illuminated the next morning — as he looked around the scene the night of the crash.
Ravnsborg said neither he nor the county sheriff who came to the scene knew that Boever’s body was lying just feet from the pavement on the highway shoulder.
“There isn’t any way you can go by without seeing that,” Arnie Rummel, an agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation who led the criminal probe, said in testimony Tuesday.
Rummel added that Ravnsborg had hardly behaved like someone who had hit a deer — a common occurrence on the highways of South Dakota.
Prosecutors also raised an exchange that Ravnsborg had with one of his staff members three days following the crash, after he had submitted his phones to crash investigators. Ravnsborg questioned an agent in the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation about what would turn up during forensic exams of his cellphones, even though the agency was supposed to have no part in the investigation to avoid conflicts of interest.
“We were not supposed to be involved,” the now-retired agent, Brent Gromer, said as he described why the exchange made him uncomfortable.
Ravnsborg’s defense attorney contended that the attorney general had done nothing nefarious and instead had cooperated fully with the crash investigation. His defense attorney, Mike Butler, described any discrepancies in Ravnsborg’s memory of that night as owing to human error.
Butler disparaged the testimony from Rummel, the crash investigator, as “opinion” that would not hold up in a court of law.
Ravnsborg was willing to take a polygraph test, though criminal investigators determined that it would not have been effective to test the attorney general’s truthfulness.
The GOP-controlled Senate, which has 32 Republican members and three Democrats, will hear from impeachment prosecutors, defense attorneys, crash investigators and former members of Ravnsborg’s staff.
It will take 24 senators, or two-thirds of the body’s 35 members, to convict Ravnsborg on either of two articles of impeachment: committing a crime that caused death, and malfeasance.
The latter alleges that he misled investigators and abused the power of his office. Investigators said Ravnsborg asked a state Division of Criminal Investigation agent about what crash investigators could find on his cellphone. He has said he was simply seeking factual information.
Noem called for Ravnsborg to resign soon after the crash and later pressed lawmakers to pursue impeachment. Noem also publicly endorsed Ravnsborg’s predecessor, Republican Marty Jackley, for election as his replacement. If Ravnsborg is forced out, the governor will appoint an interim to fill the post until the new attorney general elected in November is sworn in.
Ravnsborg has argued that the governor, who has positioned herself for a possible 2024 White House bid, pushed for his removal in part because he had investigated ethics complaints against Noem.
Ravnsborg in September agreed to an undisclosed settlement with Boever’s widow.