South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg has been impeached over his 2020 car crash that left a pedestrian dead.
The South Dakota House of Representatives acted to impeach Ravnsborg, a first-term Republican, on a 36-31-3 vote Tuesday. Impeachment required a majority of votes in the 70-member body, and 36 was the bare minimum.
The historic move makes Ravnsborg the first South Dakota official to be impeached in state history, and will force a trial in the state Senate. Ravnsborg is now suspended from office, but it’s unclear if he will still be paid his $118,603.03 annual salary.
Tuesday’s high drama in Pierre was the latest chapter in a 19-month political and legal firestorm that began when Ravnsborg ran over and killed a pedestrian on U.S. Highway 14 on Sept. 12, 2020.
Chief Deputy Charles McGuigan, who has been with the office since 1991, is now in charge, but Chief of Staff Tim Boorman, a longtime Ravnsborg friend, said no titles have changed. Boorman said Ravnsborg was in the office Tuesday morning but departed before the vote was held.
Ravnsborg released a statement after Tuesday’s vote.
“The House of Representatives voted and I respect the process but I look forward to the Senate trial where I believe I will be vindicated,” he said.
Former Attorney General Marty Jackley, who seeks to return to the job, declined to say if he thought Ravnsborg should withdraw from the campaign for the GOP nomination. Jackley also refused to say if he would serve as an interim attorney general if Ravnsborg is convicted and he was asked to do so by Gov. Kristi Noem, a former political rival he has mended fences with.
He told The Daily Beast that “since my election announcement I have been focused on sharing my experience and vision for Attorney General with delegates and the public, nothing today changes that focus.”
If the Senate votes to convict Ravnsborg—who was elected to a four-year term in 2018—and remove him from office, Noem would appoint a replacement.
“Today, the House of Representatives did the right thing for the people of South Dakota and for Joe Boever’s family,” the governor tweeted.
South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Randy Seiler, a former U.S. attorney who ran against Ravnsborg in 2018, said Ravnsborg’s impeachment was “an important step in holding him accountable”—and took a shot at Noem and House Republicans.
“Noem interfered with and politicized the impeachment process, nearly preventing today’s outcome with her actions,” he said. “At the same time, Republican legislators went back and forth on the right course of action and had secret, closed-door discussions, leaving the public out of the process.”
The state House, with 62 Republicans and eight Democrats, convened in a special session Tuesday. After both the Republican and Democratic caucuses met in the morning, the full House was called to order at 11 a.m.
Several impeachment resolutions had been prepared, but just one was introduced.
State Rep. Will Mortenson, a Republican from Pierre, long an advocate for the attorney general’s removal from office, said Ravnsborg’s actions during and after the fatal crash merited removal from office.
“I believe impeachment should be reserved for only grave and exceptional circumstances and believe this is one,” Mortenson said.
The investigation has been completed, he said, and Ravnsborg clearly drove out of his lane and struck and killed 55-year-old Joe Boever. There was “no room left for doubt,” Mortenson said.
Rep. Ryan Cwach, a Democrat from Yankton, spoke next, saying Ravnsborg must be sanctioned for his history of driving offenses that led to the death of a South Dakotan.
“If these were just traffic tickets, we wouldn’t be here,” Cwach said.
He said Ravnsborg failed to remove himself from the investigation—and that was clear “malfeasance.”
State Rep. Fred Deutsch disagreed, and offered an amendment to remove malfeasance from the resolution. It was rejected by the House.
Several lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, spoke in favor of impeachment. None rose to defend the attorney general.
Monday night, after remaining almost completely silent during the investigation, Ravnsborg released a letter he sent to South Dakota House members, as well as a document in which he posed questions about the case and offered his take on them.
He confronted the claim that he was “treated differently because he is the attorney general.”
“True. Jason would have been afforded his rights,” Ravnsborg wrote, referring to himself in the third person. “Multiple pedestrian-vehicle accidents have occurred in South Dakota immediately before and after. All drivers were similarly charged if charged at all. While there may be other conspiracy theories or speculation, none rely on actual evidence or provable testimony and, for that reason, must be dismissed.”
He blamed Noem, a Republican, for placing pressure on him to resign, saying he felt obligated to remain in office to carry out investigations into her conduct as governor. Noem is being investigated for her use of state airplanes for out-of-state political travel, and for her involvement in trying to obtain a state real-estate appraisal license for her daughter.
“My office has multiple ongoing investigations into the Governor’s alleged activities and people associated with her,” he said in a letter to state legislators released late Monday. “However, despite her procedural interference and bias towards me, I believe she has rights and should have the ability to let the process prevail regarding these open investigations regarding her and her administration.”
Ravnsborg said Noem “violated my civil rights and my privacy rights. She broke the law and violated the House of Representatives cease and desist order to taint the evidence and public perception against me.”
He also said she “sought to undermine, criticize and usurp the powers and privileges of the House at every step.”
Ravnsborg also said he was denied a jury trial in his case by the judge.
“Had I been able to have a jury trial, I would have taken that opportunity,” he said.
Noem responded to Ravnsborg’s allegations in a four-part Twitter post Tuesday morning.
“The people of SD deserve to know the truth. The facts speak for themselves. Anyone who wants to know the facts should ignore the AG’s bizarre letter and instead read Secretary Price’s letter to Speaker Gosch and watch the Highway Patrol presentation from last week.
“The Attorney General wants to make this about me to distract House members, when the question before them is whether he should be the state’s top law enforcement officer. He killed an innocent man, lied about the events of that evening, and abused his office to cover it up.
“He had months to offer his testimony to the impeachment committee but instead waited until the night before the House meets.
“The question for the House is whether they believe all of the law enforcement officers who investigated this case are lying? Jason does; I do not. I stand with law enforcement.”
On Tuesday, state Rep. Linda Duba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, said she was “offended” by the late-night appeal. Duba said Ravnsborg was invited to testify under oath before the special committee but declined.
“He did not do that,” she said.
Duba also said she was bothered by what she described as false claims in the Monday missive from the attorney general. He claimed to have apologized in person to Boever’s family, but the dead man’s cousin, Nick Nemec, told The Daily Beast that was not true.
Jenny Boever, Joe Boever’s widow, was at the Capitol for Tuesday’s special session and told lawmakers that Ravnsborg had not apologized to her.
Nemec, a former Democratic state representative, has been a constant presence at court hearings and legislative deliberations.
“Exhaustion at the end of the race. We got him impeached but it was bare bones,” he said. “I would have liked a 50-20 vote instead of the 36-31. On to the Senate.”
Nemec said he agreed with state Rep. Mary Fitzgerald of Spearfish, who said the House needed to make it clear that state officials were held to the same standard as everyone else.
“A lot of people around the state have told me there’s two systems of justice, one for the average Joes like Joe Boever, one for the important people,” Nemec said. “If there was one uniform system of justice, Ravnsborg would be in jail.”
He said if Boever had run down and killed Ravnsborg in this scenario, he would have been in prison.
“I don’t doubt that for a second, but that’s not how things worked out,” Nemec said.
Nemec said he wanted to thank Rep. Mortenson for sticking with this for a year and a half, even at times when it seemed like Ravnsborg had escaped any real consequences.
Impeachment proceedings began in February 2021 but were suspended while Ravnsborg’s criminal case proceeded. In August, he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges; a third was dropped.
The attorney general paid $1,000 in fines and $3,000 in court costs and was ordered to promote safe driving. He reached an undisclosed settlement with Jenny Boever.
But the end of the criminal case did not halt public outrage over the fatal crash, even as Ravnsborg continued to quietly campaign for the Republican nomination for a second term. The attorney general nominee will be selected at a state convention this summer.
Impeachment hearings resumed during the 2022 legislative session, with Noem continuing to apply pressure to lawmakers. At times, that led to very public battles between the governor and the overwhelmingly Republican legislature, especially between Noem and House Speaker Spencer Gosch.
This is the first time impeachment of a state official has been used in South Dakota’s 133-year history. The state Constitution lists reasons for the removal of public officials:
“The Governor and other state and judicial officers, except county judges, justices of the peace and police magistrates, shall be liable to impeachment for drunkenness, crimes, corrupt conduct, or malfeasance or misdemeanor in office, but judgment in such cases shall not extend further than to removal from office and disqualification to hold any office of trust or profit under the state. The person accused whether convicted or acquitted shall nevertheless be liable to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment according to law.”
On March 28, the House Select Committee on Investigation voted 6-2, on party lines, not to recommend impeachment. The committee’s two Democrats issued a report supporting his removal from office.
The majority report said he was not acting as attorney general at the time of the fatal crash and therefore had not committed an impeachable offense.
That seemed to point to a quiet conclusion to the matter, but on April 4, the South Dakota Department of Public Safety issued a report on the crash, and two days later, a pair of South Dakota Highway Patrol troopers provided lawmakers with a briefing on the report.
That breathed new life back into the case, as some Republicans said they now favored impeachment. It all came down to a debate and a vote on Tuesday.
Now Ravnsborg, who turned 46 on Tuesday, is suspended until the Senate holds a trial. Republicans hold a 32-3 majority in that chamber, but as Tuesday’s vote showed, Republicans were ready to dismiss him from office.