PIERRE, SD (AP) — The South Dakota House on Tuesday removed state Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg over a 2020 car accident in which he killed a pedestrian, but initially said he might have hit a deer or another large animal.
Ravnsborg, a Republican, is the first public official to be impeached in South Dakota history. He will be at least temporarily removed from office pending the historic Senate trial, where a two-thirds majority is needed to be convicted on impeachment. The Senate must wait at least 20 days to hold its trial, but has not yet set a date.
Ravnsborg did not contest a pair of traffic offenses in the accident last year, including an illegal lane change. He called Joseph Boever’s death a tragic accident.
In narrowly voting to remove the top state attorney, the Republican-controlled House accused Ravnsborg of committing crimes that caused someone’s death, making “numerous false statements” to forces order after the accident and for using his office to navigate the criminal investigation. A conviction in the Senate would mean that Ravnsborg would be barred from holding any state office in the future.
“When we deal with the life of one of your citizens, I think it weighed heavily on everyone,” said Republican Rep. Will Mortenson, who presented the articles of impeachment.
Ravnsborg said in a statement that he looks forward to the Senate trial, “where I believe I will be vindicated.”
Meanwhile, Tim Bormann, the attorney general’s chief of staff, said his staff would “dedicate themselves professionally” to their work while Ranvsborg was forced to take time off.
Ravnsborg, who took office in 2019, was returning home from a Republican dinner in September 2020 when he struck and killed Boever, who was walking along a rural road. A sheriff who responded after Ravnsborg called 911 initially reported it as an animal collision. Ravnsborg said he didn’t realize he had hit a man until he returned the next day and found the body.
Highway Patrol concluded that Ravnsborg’s car had driven completely across the highway shoulder before hitting Boever, and criminal investigators later said they did not believe some of Ravnsborg’s statements.
The House rejected the recommendation of a GOP-backed majority report of a special investigative committee, which argued that whatever he had done wrong was not part of his “incumbent” official duties. . But even Republican lawmakers who argued his actions did not meet the constitutional grounds for impeachment said Ravnsborg should step down.
“He should have resigned, should have done the honorable thing,” said House Speaker Spencer Gosch, who oversaw the House investigation and voted against impeachment.
Articles of impeachment had to be approved by a majority of the 70 members of the House and passed by a single vote.
Of the 36 people who voted in favour, eight were Democrats and 28 Republicans. The 31 against were all Republicans. Republican Rep. Scott Odenbach recused himself because he gave legal advice to the attorney general after the crash. Two other Republican lawmakers were absent.
Ravnsborg, who had been largely silent on the crash and was not present for the vote, sent lawmakers a defiant pair of letters Monday night urging them not to impeach him.
“In a few hours, your vote will set a precedent for years to come,” Ravnsborg wrote. “No state has ever impeached an elected official for a traffic accident.”
He also accused Republican Governor Kristi Noem of interfering in the investigation and supporting impeachment because of the attorney general’s investigations into her behavior.
After Ravnsborg fell out with the governor over the crash, he filed a pair of ethics complaints against Noem with the state’s Government Accountability Board. His office is also investigating whether an organization aligned with the governor violated campaign finance disclosure laws.
Noem praised the vote on Twitter, writing that the House “did the right thing for the people of South Dakota and for Joe Boever’s family.”
The decision brought some relief to her family, who took her wedding photo as they watched from the House gallery during the vote. They decried the criminal charges as a “slap on the wrist” for Ravnsborg.
“We are one step closer to justice. We’re not done,” Boever’s cousin Nick Nemec said.
“Now we just need the help of the Senate on this because these laws need to be changed drastically,” said Jennifer Boever, who was married to Boever. “People are injured and killed, and the pedestrian has no means of defending himself against a 4,000 pound (1,814 kilogram) vehicle.”