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South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg faces a landmark impeachment trial this week for his actions surrounding a 2020 car crash in which he struck and killed a pedestrian.
As the state Senate prepares to decide whether the first-term Republican attorney general should be convicted and removed from office, here’s what to know ahead of the two-day trial that begins Tuesday:
WHY WAS RAVNSBORG DISMISSED?
He struck and killed Joseph Boever, 55, as Boever walked near the shoulder of a rural road in September 2020.
Ravnsborg told a 911 dispatcher he hit “something” in the middle of the road and later said he believed he hit a large animal. The next day he returned to the crash site and said that it was only then that he discovered Boever’s body.
After a lengthy criminal investigation, Ravnsborg did not contest two traffic offenses, including an illegal lane change. Ravnsborg tried to get past the crash, but Gov. Kristi Noem, another Republican, pushed for her ouster.
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In April, the House impeached Ravnsborg on two counts: committing crimes that caused someone’s death and embezzlement of office.
WHAT ARE THE IMPEACHMENT CHARGES?
The first charge relates to the accident and Ravnsborg’s driving record that preceded it.
“The Attorney General broke the law and as a result one of our citizens died,” Republican Rep. Will Mortenson told the House as he pleaded for impeachment. Mortenson said the crash was part of a “worrying pattern” of driving by Ravnsborg, pointing to around 20 tickets and warnings he had racked up.
The embezzlement charge covers a range of Ravnsborg’s actions.
House lawmakers say Ravnsborg misled law enforcement, whether it was telling a 911 dispatcher the crash happened ‘in the middle of the road’ or conducting interviews later in which criminal investigators said the attorney general was not being candid and telling the truth.
House lawmakers also argue that Ravnsborg abused the powers of his office by using official letterhead for a statement about the incident and later questioning a Criminal Investigations Division officer about what investigators of the accident could find on his mobile phone.
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Ravnsborg has consistently denied wrongdoing and presented the Senate trial as a chance to be “vindicated.”
WHAT HAPPENS DURING THE IMPEACHMENT TRIAL?
It takes two-thirds of the 35 members of the Republican-controlled Senate to convict Ravnsborg, which would trigger automatic removal from office as attorney general. If found guilty, senators could also bar him from future office with another two-thirds majority vote.
They will make the decision after convening for two days the first impeachment trial in state history. It will also give both sides the opportunity to present and openly discuss the details of an incident that has upended state policy for more than a year.
Lawmakers opted for a speedy trial. Impeachment prosecutors and Ravnsborg’s defense attorney were each given one hour for an opening statement, four hours for testimony and one hour to close their arguments.
“It’s very limited, very unusual – something I’ve never done,” said Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo, who is leading the prosecution.
He was initially part of the criminal prosecution team but left before a charging decision was announced.
Vargo and other prosecutors plan to present in-person testimony from crash investigators, as well as former members of the Criminal Investigations Division. The agency is under the watch of the attorney general and was therefore recused from the investigation into the accident, but Ravnsborg called on its expertise as the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation investigated its conduct.
A former Criminal Investigations Division agent answered Ravnsborg’s questions about what could be extracted from his cellphone during the crash investigation, and another was asked about polygraph tests.
Ravnsborg did not say whether he would testify.
His attorney Mike Butler won’t be calling any witnesses. Rather, it will rely on the cross-examination of prosecution witnesses as well as on the pleadings.
Senators can take additional time to ask supplementary questions and debate articles of impeachment. They plan to vote on a verdict by the end of the day Wednesday. The Senate will vote on each article of impeachment, as well as whether to bar him from future state office.
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WHAT HAPPENS AFTER?
The outcome of the trial may have implications for people other than Ravnsborg.
A conviction would be a victory for Noem, who adamantly pushed for Ravnsborg’s ouster. She said last year she was “outraged” by the outcome of the criminal investigation and suggested impeachment could hold Ravnsborg accountable.
Noem would appoint Ravnsborg’s replacement until the nominee elected in the November race for attorney general is sworn in. Ravnsborg was a candidate for re-election this year but decided not to run.
Ravnsborg argued that the governor, who has positioned himself for a possible White House bid in 2024, pushed for his removal in part because he investigated ethics complaints against Noem. His office is also investigating whether an organization aligned with the governor violated campaign finance disclosure laws.
It’s unclear how Ravnsborg’s permanent ouster would affect these investigations.
Meanwhile, the South Dakota GOP is set to decide its next nominee for attorney general’s office at a convention in the days following the Senate trial. One of Ravnsborg’s top aides, David Natvig, declared his interest in the appointment and presented himself as someone who could continue Ravnsborg’s work.
Natvig led the Criminal Investigation Division under Ravnsborg.
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However, Marty Jackley, who served in the attorney general’s office for about a decade before Ravnsborg, is also up for the GOP nomination for his former position. He has the support of Noem and much of the state’s law enforcement community.
Delegates from each Republican party in the county will vote for a nominee for attorney general on June 25.
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