PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota senators on Tuesday begin hearing evidence for the impeachment of Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, whose account of a fatal 2020 traffic accident led criminal investigators, some lawmakers and the victim’s family to question his truthfulness.
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, with conviction on either one triggering immediate removal from office. Senators may also vote on whether Ravnsborg should be barred from holding future office.
Either way, 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.
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.
Ravnsborg said neither he nor the county sheriff who came to the scene knew that he had struck and killed a man — 55-year-old Joseph Boever — until Ravnsborg returned to the scene the following morning.
Investigators said they doubted some of Ravnsborg’s statements. In earlier testimony to lawmakers, they said they determined the attorney general had 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.
They also identified what they thought were small 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 suggested that Boever's face had come through Ravnsborg's windshield because his glasses were found in the car.
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.
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.