Three weeks ago, Governor Kristi Noem asked Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to deliver Minnehaha County state’s attorney Aaron McGowan’s head on a legal platter.
Jason Ravnsborg got asked to do legal work. That should be all we need to know that it’s not going to happen, right?
A.G. Ravnsborg did send Governor Noem his homework on October 1, thirteen days after Noem gave him the assignment to dig up evidence she could use to oust McGowan under SDCL 3-17-3, a law enacted during Prohibition to allow the Governor to boot local prosecutors and other officials who failed to uphold the booze ban. McGowan was absent from his office from mid-July through mid-September, in relation, it seems, to a serious bender that drew a 9-1-1 call from a concerned third party but which resulted in no arrest or other police action.
Ravnsborg synopsizes his office’s findings in 36 bullet points, says there is not enough evidence to charge the Minnehaha County state’s attorney with a felony or misdemeanor. A.G. Ravnsborg acknowledges that Noem has the authority to remove a state’s attorney for being a drunken stumble-bum (actually, drunkenness and stumble-bummery are each sufficient conditions to invoke SDCL 3-17-3’s ouster by governor), but “To aid you in your decision-making process,” A.G. Ravnsborg gently submits three precedential cases, in all of which apparently suspect officials were not removed from office.
Ravnsborg’s clear signal to Noem is, “Please don’t make me defend you for attacking McGowan, because I’ll lose that case, too.”
That does not mean Ravnsborg is saying McGowan is a righteous dude. Far from it: Ravnsborg lays out statements (not direct quotes, not from named sources, not, apparently, under oath) that should make defenders of McGowan queasy. According to “some members of the Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Office,”
27. …McGowan would send messages via Snapchat throughout the day saying “bar?” indicating that they should to the bar to drink.
…29. …McGowan would would ask (employee(s) to bring alcohol to his house when they were working during regular business hours and he was at home.
…31. …McGowan was, at times, too inebriated to drive to work and would ask employees to bring him to work.
…33. …a female employee asked McGowan for the day off after a trial and he agreed, provided that she bought a bottle of alcohol and he could come to her residence to drink it [Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, memo to Governor Kristi Noem, 2019.10.01].
The female employee is not named, but the female employee is the only source to step out from the accusing “some” and make the case individually:
34. The female employee was interviewed and stated that McGowan did give her the day off, she bought the bottle of alcohol, he came over for a few hours and made her feel uncomfortable at times, but then he left on a bicycle [Ravnsborg to Noem, 2019.10.01].
To every other charge of questionable conduct, Ravnsborg affords McGowan a response: McGowan told Ravnsborg’s investigator(s) that the “bar” messages were jokes; the requests for alcohol only came occasionally and late on Friday afternoons; and he never “asked anyone to drive him to work because he was inebriated but did say that he had gotten a ride to his vehicle because of drinking on the previous evening.” That’s half of a rebuttal tangled in three acknowledgments of unwise behavior.
So weakly rebutted, each of those unwise actions bolsters a pattern of behavior that makes more credible the fourth charge of inappropriate behavior: making a managerial response to an employee request contingent on the employee’s facilitation of the boss’s drinking problem and the employee’s invitation of the boss to her home for an apparently unchaperoned and lengthy social call. And in Ravnsborg’s report, McGowan offers no response to this ugly charge.
Forget SDCL 3-17-3 and the Governor’s legal authority to remove an elected official: if I tried imposing a quid pro quo like that on a female subordinate, my wife would remove me from the house.
Ravnsborg’s report gives no response from McGowan to that charge. McGowan gives not specifics to KELO-TV on that charge but offers this generic indictment of the whole report:
I have not received a copy of the report yet. I’m told it contains a lot of unnamed sources of vague information. I’m also told it contains several inaccurate claims without dates or specifics. Unfortunately, I was never given an opportunity to challenge any of these false claims. It’s difficult to prove a negative. Once I receive the report, I will review it and decide if it warrants any response [“New Report Details McGowan Snapchat Messages and Request to Drink Alcohol with Employees,” KELO-TV, 2019.10.09].
A quid pro quo with a subordinate involving hooch and a housecall? Yeah, that warrants a response.
Failing to get McGowan’s head on a legal platter, Governor Noem says she “will not be pursuing any further action at this time.” But her release of the Attorney General’s report may be all the action she needs to take. She makes life much harder for McGowan in the press, at work, and at the polls if he seeks reëlection as he promised when Noem announced this investigation.
I have darn little sympathy for drinking to excess. A prosecutor should know better than anyone else in town that alcohol, far from solving problems, only makes them worse. But you don’t have to be a Father Haire Prohibitionist to agree that bosses should not ask employees to (and I feel like I’m using unnecessarily gentle language here) trade social favors for work favors.
Again, none of the claims against McGowan are sourced or under oath. And we really shouldn’t take anything Jason Ravnsborg writes without a block of salt. But the report paints a pretty bad picture of McGowan, one which his own responses as reported so far don’t undo.