He broke the law and killed a man.
I can’t think of any more succinct and objectively damning statement that I could make about any elected official or candidate for office. Strip away all the personalities and party labels and consider the scenario in the abstract: we elect someone to office, and while in office, that someone breaks the law and kills a man. What do you do with that elected official? You fire him.
But not in South Dakota. Not when the elected official is a Republican.
Jason Ravnsborg, elected Attorney General of South Dakota in 2018, broke the law and killed Joe Boever on September 12, 2020. Ravnsborg was driving home at night from a campaign event. He was making phone calls and surfing the Internet on his phone while driving. He drove his car on the shoulder of Highway 14 coming out of Highmore and struck Joe Boever, who was walking at the edge of the highway with a lit flashlight. Boever’s head broke Ravnsborg’s windshield, and Boever’s glasses fell into Ravnsborg’s car before Boever’s body fell into the grass at the edge of the road. Ravnsborg stopped, called 911, and said he thought he’d hit a deer. He did not report seeing Boever. He did not report seeing Boever or Boever’s lit flashlight in the ditch. Sheriff Mike Volek saw the flashlight but ignored it, loaned Ravnsborg his personal car, and told him to leave the scene of the crime. Ravnsborg drove home to Pierre, then drove back the next morning with his chief of staff Tim Bormann to return the sheriff’s car. On the way out, Ravnsborg stopped at the crash site, found Joe Boever’s body, and reported the dead body to the Sheriff, who came to the scene and told Ravnsborg and Bormann to go home.
Jason Ravnsborg broke the law and killed Joe Boever. The two Democrats on the House Select Committee empaneled to consider impeachment needed just one page to express with legal and moral clarity that these actions and Ravnsborg’s subsequent untruthful statements to law enforcement about this lawbreaking and killing make him unfit to serve as South Dakota’s Attorney General:
Article XVI, § 3 of the South Dakota Constitution provides that state officers shall be liable to impeachment for “malfeasance or misdemeanor in office”. In State ex rel. Steffen v. Peterson, the South Dakota Supreme Court adopted the Minnesota Supreme Court’s definition of malfeasance, explaining that it “is not susceptible of an exact definition but it has reference to evil conduct or an illegal deed, the doing of that which one ought not to do, the performance of an act by an officer in his official capacity that is wholly illegal and wrongful.” State ex rel. Steffen v. Peterson, 607 N.W.2d 262, 268-69 (S.D. 2000).
A minority of the Select Committee finds that Attorney General Ravnsborg was, at a minimum, not forthcoming to law enforcement officers during the investigation. We find that the South Dakota Highway Patrol’s report and accident reconstruction was thorough, appropriate, and conducted within the bounds of accepted scientific practice. It was not contradicted. We adopt the South Dakota Highway Patrol’s report as our own for this minority report. We further find that Attorney General answered questions during his second interrogation on October 30, 2020, in a manner that misrepresented his cell phone usage prior to the accident. All law enforcement who interrogated Attorney General concluded that his statements were false or misleading and too inconsistent with other facts as to be believable. Law enforcement officers testified before the committee their opinion and belief that the Attorney General was not being truthful. We find that the law enforcement’s opinions are reliable, sincere, and credible based upon their experience and expertise as law enforcement officers. We further find that the Attorney General abused his power of office. The Attorney General used the resources of the office to understand how investigators would learn facts about his case. This is inappropriate and beyond the grasp of other individuals under criminal investigation. The people of this State have entrusted its law enforcement to the Attorney General, the highest law enforcement officer in the State. We expected the Attorney General to be fully truthful in his cooperation with law enforcement, as the people have entrusted him with the very responsibility of honest and effective law enforcement. We find that elected officers of the State are always “in office” as evidenced by his use of his official letterhead to issue his statement on September 14, 2020, and the Attorney General committed malfeasance when answering questions by law enforcement.
Accordingly, this minority report recommends articles of impeachment issue for malfeasance [emphasis mine, Representatives Jamie Smith and Ryan Cwach, Minority Report and Recommendations, House Select Committee on Investigation, 2022.03.28; posted online by Joe Sneve, “Jason Ravnsborg Should Not Be Impeached, Investigation Committee Says,” Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 2022.03.28].
Jason Ravnsborg broke the law and killed a man, and then he lied to cops about it.
Down in Nebraska, Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry didn’t kill anyone. All he did was lie about his knowledge of foreign funds in his campaign account, but the moment he was convicted, his own party leaders, including Speaker of the U.S. House Kevin McCarthy and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, told Fortenberry he had to resign. And Fortenberry had enough good sense left to do so.
But in South Dakota, the whole system bowed to the R before Jason’s name. His law school classmate/prosecutor Emily Sovell declined to charge him with any felony, instead pursued three misdemeanor charges and accepted a plea deal that got Ravnsborg off with just two of three traffic violations, neither of which addressed his striking and killing a man with his vehicle, and no jail time. The impeachment committee heard testimony about the uncontested facts of the deadly crash, Ravnsborg’s deadly inattention, and his untruthfulness about his deadly actions from multiple law enforcement officers. Not one cop walked into the committee and said, “Oh, yeah, Ravnsborg’s right! Boever was out in the middle of the road, strung out on anti-depression meds and looking to kill himself. When his head was stuck in Ravnsborg’s windshield, Boever looked a lot like a deer. The wind blew all the debris from Ravnsborg’s car around. Everything Ravnsborg said to us was totally believable, just like we’d expect from a good Attorney General.” The Attorney General himself refused to communicate with the impeachment investigators.
But the Republicans on the committee generated 21 pages of excuses and evasions to justify recommending no impeachment. The Republicans cast doubt on Ravnsborg’s guilt and on the plain facts of the investigation—”It appears that his vehicle may have left his lane of travel.” Their majority report declares that distracted driving is dangerous but not impeachable. The Republicans declare that Ravnsborg’s “alleged” lying to police is not corrupt conduct. The Republicans invoke a 2009 case to say that “There is no man in official position so letter perfect in the law that he does not at some point… fall short of the strict statutory measure of his official duties.” The Republicans assert that Ravnsborg, who was convicted of two misdemeanors while in office, “did not commit misdemeanor in office.”
And after sixteen pages of making excuses for Ravnsborg, the Republican majority on the impeachment committee spend five pages criticizing Governor Kristi Noem and dark money outfits for pushing for Ravnsborg’s impeachment.
The Republicans can’t impeach a man who broke the law and killed a man, but “The Select Committee on Impeachment unequivocally condemns Governor Noem’s attempts to influence this committee.”
The Republicans’ moral and legal confusion on this matter is, to put it mildly, stunning and disheartening.
So if you’re planning to break the law in South Dakota and you have any concerns that you might kill a man, make sure you register Republican. That should keep you out of trouble.
But don’t try to influence the Legislature with any call for moral clarity. That nefarious behavior will earn you unequivocal condemnation.