SD House committee points to ‘in office’ clause to clear AG

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Republicans on a South Dakota House committee want to clear the state’s attorney general of impeachment charges for his actions surrounding a 2020 fatal car crash, arguing that anything wrong he did was not part of his work “in office.”

But those pushing to remove Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg from office are not giving up before the full House convenes in two weeks.

A House committee concluded its monthslong inquiry late Monday by voting 6-2 on party lines to recommend that Ravnsborg, a Republican, face no impeachment charges. Its 21-page majority report repeatedly cites a clause in the state constitution that says officials can be impeached for actions “in office” and argues most of Ravnsborg’s actions surrounding the crash were not done in his official capacity as attorney general or were not done with “an evil or corrupt motive.”

The report clears Ravnsborg of anything that would merit impeachment in the September 2020 crash that killed Joseph Boever, who was walking near a rural highway. The attorney general last year pleaded no contest to a pair of misdemeanors and was required to pay fines.

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem quickly slammed the committee’s decision and called on House lawmakers to “do the right thing” when they meet on April 12. It would take two House members to introduce articles of impeachment and a majority of the Republican-controlled House to impeach.

Democrats may also try to convince their Republican colleagues to adopt their minority report recommending impeachment.

“It’s up to the individual member to make their own decision,” House Speaker Spencer Gosch, a Republican, said.

The committee moved to release parts of the crash investigation that have not been redacted late Monday, but it’s not clear when it will be available online. The Legislative Research Council on Tuesday declined requests for the files.

Boever’s family decried the committee’s decision as failing to hold the attorney general accountable for his death, but the debate in the House will likely hinge on a legal argument over the state’s constitution.

South Dakota lawmakers are treading uncommon ground. The Legislature had never investigated impeachment for an elected official, the committee found, and only once, in 1917, launched an impeachment inquiry into a circuit judge.

“The majority concluded a far narrower interpretation of impeachment power than it should have,” said Republican Rep. Will Mortenson, who brought articles of impeachment last year.

“It is uncontroverted that the attorney general drove out of his lane, ran off the road and killed an innocent South Dakotan,” he added. “And his first call was to the dispatcher where he said this is the attorney general and I was in the middle of the road, which is patently untrue. And so the crimes and the actions surrounding the crimes have been my focus.”

But it’s not clear whether Mortenson and the governor will be able to persuade lawmakers to impeach. Democrats have shown they are ready to do so, but they hold just eight seats in the 70-member chamber.

In the minority report supported by the two Democrats, they argue that elected officials are always “in office,” pointing to how Ravnsborg used his official letterhead to issue a statement shortly after the crash. They also argue he committed “malfeasance” by giving “ false or misleading” statements to law enforcement during the crash investigation.

“The story changed multiple times,” Democratic Rep. Jamie Smith said.

Ravnsborg first reported the crash as a collision with an animal and said he did not realize he struck a man until he returned to the scene the next day. He also did not admit to using his cellphone while driving earlier that night until investigators pressed him. The investigators told the impeachment committee they did not believe Ravnsborg, but prosecutors said they were unable to prove that he realized he killed a man the night of the crash.

In a sign that it might be difficult to get enough House votes to impeach, the committee Republicans who voted against impeachment represent a broad swath of a caucus that has rarely been on the same page this year. The report also reveals GOP resentment toward Noem, spending four pages documenting her “interference in the criminal proceedings and the impeachment process.”

The attorney general’s office on Tuesday said it will launch an investigation into whether state campaign finance disclosure laws were broken by a Noem-aligned organization that sponsored billboards to push state lawmakers to impeach Ravnsborg this month. Noem has denied any involvement, and the organization said it has not broken any laws.

Even House Republican leader Rep. Kent Peterson, who supported articles of impeachment last year, voted for the report that cleared Ravnsborg. Peterson on Tuesday did not respond to requests for comment.

Other Republican committee members referenced the report when asked to explain the committee’s decision.

“Attorney Ravnsborg at best underplayed or omitted, and at worst, misrepresented whether he was on his phone during the drive,” the report said, but added that those law enforcement interviews were not given “in office” as attorney general.

Mortenson hoped there would be a groundswell for Ravnsborg’s impeachment, with pressure from voters on lawmakers.

Nick Nemec, Boever’s cousin, called for voters to contact legislators, but expressed little confidence that Ravsnborg will be removed.

“(Boever) has not gotten justice yet,” Nemec said. “I’m quickly losing hope that he will get justice..”

Stephen Groves
Stephen Groves
Stephen covers Congress in Washington.