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Schoenbeck Picks Vargo, Tracy to Prosecute Ravnsborg in Senate Trial

Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck (R-5/Lake Kampeska) yesterday announced that Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo will serve as chief prosecutor and Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy will serve as assistant prosecutor in the Senate impeachment trial of killer Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg:

Schoenbeck set the trial for June 21-22. He said Pennington County prosecutor Mark Vargo will argue in favor of the two articles of impeachment — one for crimes that led to the death of Joe Boever and the other for malfeasance in office. Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy will assist in the prosecution.

…Vargo was part of the original team of state’s attorneys that Hyde County Deputy State’s Attorney Emily Sovell used in determining what criminal charges should be brought. Although he left the group before Ravnsborg was charged with three misdemeanors, Schoenbeck said Vargo has a firm grasp of the evidence.

Vargo said Schoenbeck asked him to oversee the trial.

“It’s a simple as that,” Vargo said. “I did not lobby for it.”

Neither the South Dakota Constitution nor statute spells out who manages the Senate impeachment trial. Both times that the U.S. House impeached Donald Trump, the Speaker of the House selected a team of Representatives to present the case to the Senate. But Speaker of the South Dakota House Spencer Gosch appears not to have gotten a say:

Asked Wednesday about the Senate’s decision to have Vargo and Tracy make the case, Gosch said, “Who they choose for their prosecutor is totally up to them. The House and Senate processes are different and it’s completely inappropriate for me as the presiding officer of the other chamber to weigh in in any way on what they decide to do as a body” [Bob Mercer, “Senate Trial of Ravnsborg Is Set for June,” KELO-TV, 2022.04.13].

It’s not every day that the jury gets to choose the prosecuting attorney. And the Senate as a body did not decide on Vargo and Tracy. The Senate did not meet in Pierre on Tuesday during the secret House Republican caucus and the House impeachment proceeding. Senator Schoenbeck appears to have made this decision on his own.

In a sign that Vargo may be a good pick for the job, Speaker Gosch, who voted against impeachment, seems uncomfortable with Vargo’s involvement:

Gosch said he thought it would have been inappropriate for Vargo to be involved in his committee’s investigation given his involvement in Ravnsborg’s prosecution, though he noted the roles of the Senate and House differ when it comes to the impeachment process.

“I just don’t think Vargo is unbiased,” said Gosch, a Republican from Glenham.

Vargo said he’s unfamiliar with any ethical or political standard that would preclude him from prosecuting the case just because he knows so much about it.

“If there’s something specific he’s citing, I’d be interested in hearing that,” he said [Jonathan Ellis and Joe Sneve, “Senate Picks Prosecutors, Date for South Dakota AG Jason Ravnsborg’s Impeachment Trial,” Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 2022.04.13].

Biased? Sure. Vargo and Tracy are among the 58 state’s attorneys who endorsed Marty Jackley in March 2021 almost immediately after he announced his bid to return to the Attorney General’s office.

Mark Vargo (second from right), Twitter pic with Attorney General Marty Jackley (right), 2015.05.07.
Mark Vargo (second from right), Twitter pic with Attorney General Marty Jackley (right), 2015.05.07.
Alexis Tracy, Twitter pic with Attorney General Marty Jackley at Clay County Lincoln Day Dinner, 2016.04.07.
Alexis Tracy, Twitter pic with Attorney General Marty Jackley at Clay County Lincoln Day Dinner, 2016.04.07.

“Marty’s return to the Attorney General’s office would mean exactly what it always has…hard work, integrity, and old-fashioned South Dakota leadership by example,” Vargo said in a statement. “I am thrilled to see him come back as a partner because he embodies the professionalism and values that South Dakota deserves from its Attorney General” [Joe Sneve, “Prosecutors Don’t Want South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg Back for 2nd Term,” Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 2021.03.23].

…and…

Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy said, “Marty’s proven experience and record as Attorney General, United States Attorney, and as a State’s Attorney is why he has my full support to be our next Attorney General” [Jody Heemstra, “Jackley to Run for Attorney General in 2022,” DRG News, 2021.03.02].

But since when are prosecutors supposed to be unbiased? Jason Ravnsborg certainly won’t send as his defense an attorney who says, “Maybe you should remove Jason from office, maybe you shouldn’t—who am I to say?”

I have not met Tracy or blogged about her work. I have blogged about Vargo’s lawyering. He arouses animus from American Indians for his prosecution of NDN Collective leader Nick Tilsen. But Vargo has worked with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to help pregnant Native women with drug problems… and Vargo’s record on Indian relations should have no bearing on the prosecution of Jason Ravnsborg, who broke white man’s laws, killed a white man, and lied to white cops about his crime.

Vargo has butted heads with Ravnsborg publicly, questioning Ravnsborg’s reading of marijuana laws and declining to follow Ravnsborg’s recommendation that state’s attorneys prosecute individuals for possession of CBD oil.

To make clear my own bias, I met Vargo when he was coaching the Rapid City Stevens High School debate team. I coached high school speech for several years and have judged debate and related events since 1989. Vargo, like most of the debate coaches I know, has a sharp intellect and a keen appreciation for logic, evidence, and language. As a dedicated advocate of the debatocracy—a society run by philosopher kings who have participated in high school debate—I express my total confidence in Mark Vargo’s ability to argue intelligently, honestly, and passionately for Ravnsborg’s removal.

And if there is any persuading to be done—if Senate Republicans are not already conducting a secret caucus via telephone and email; if they do not walk into the Senate Chamber on June 21 with their minds already made up, either by themselves or by their President Pro Tempore—Mark Vargo is the right attorney to persuade them. Like two-thirds of the Senate (yes, 24, exactly the number needed to convict Ravnsborg), Vargo is a white male Republican, conservative but, like the Senate as a whole, not as radically right-wing as the House. Sending a Democratic lawyer like Ravnsborg’s 2018 challenger Randy Seiler or Representative Ryan Cwach (D-18/Yankton) to prosecute this Republican menace would have triggered too many political sensitivities. Sending prime impeachment sponsor Republican Representative Will Mortenson (R-24/Pierre) or any other Republican running for reëlection this year would have felt too uncomfortably political for a South Dakota Republican Party trying to keep its house together. Vargo, a Republican but not a high-rolling partisan operative, gives the Senators some insulation from partisan considerations.

Plus, no matter what a worthless piece of refuse Jason Ravnsborg is, the tight vote to impeach in the House demonstrates that prosecuting the Attorney General is not a job anyone seeking to climb the SDGOP ladder would dare take. Vargo is not a ladder climber. I don’t believe Vargo has endorsed Marty Jackley because he’s looking for a promotion to the chief of staff position that Ravnsborg created for his crony Tim Bormann; I believe Vargo has endorsed Jackley because he recognizes as clearly as I do that Jackley would do a much better job as Attorney General than Ravnsborg has (and is much less likely to kill anyone through inattention). I get the impression—and yes, this is just an impression drenched in my own bias, possibly just wishful thinking, but also, possibly, a reason bigger than our shared love of debate for my respect for Vargo—that Mark Vargo is his own man, a lawyer who will make the case for what is legal, right, and true regardless of any political consequences. If Vargo can make that same impression on Senators, they may be more receptive to the call to convict.

Vargo is just the right combination of political familiarity and political independence to make an effective case to the South Dakota Senate without sweating whether it will affect his chance of winning the next state’s attorney election or getting a choice speaking spot at the next Lincoln Day Dinner.

And, if in the nine and a half weeks Schoenbeck has delayed this trial, if Ravnsborg does not finally get the hint that his goose is cooked and resign, Vargo will provide a vigorous prosecution that will rivet Senators’ attention and maximize the chances that the Senate will remove this stain from the Attorney General’s office.

27 Comments

  1. Nick Nemec 2022-04-14

    To hear Speaker Gosch complain that Mr. Vargo isn’t unbiased is laughable. In what world do we want the prosecuting attorney to have no opinion on the guilt of the people they are prosecuting?

    Don’t forget Gosch is the person who hand picked the House Select Committee on Investigations that rubber stamped his desired “do not impeach” recommendation. Thankfully the majority of the House saw fit to suport impeachment, and save South Dakota from further embarrassment.

  2. larry kurtz 2022-04-14

    After transitioning from state Senator Art Rusch’s law office my daughter number two loved her internship under Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy!

  3. Nix 2022-04-14

    Couldn’t agree more.
    Ravensborg needs to go back to Cherokee. Iowa deserves this dips*it back.
    Unfortunately, we are , once again, jumping from the pan into the fire.
    Jackboot Jackley was the guy that back in 2017 when he was going to run for Governor tried to convict Eric Hagen for
    supplying the seed for the first efforts
    by the FSST to open their dispensary on sovereign land.
    He tried to convict Hagen of a felony for
    intent to distribute and send him to prison
    for up to 17 years.
    Why?
    All of it was so Jackboot could put a feather in his cap to show the uninformed
    that he was tough on drugs.
    Once again, proof that they do not see cannabis as medicine.
    That in itself is enough to get the booze
    swilling GOP like Gary Cammack to give him the thumbs up.
    He had no regard for Eric Hagen or the
    rule of law.
    The frightening thing is that he thought
    that he was doing the right thing.
    Jackley got beat and rightfully so.
    The dispensary in Flandreau is up and running on all 8 cylinders.
    And Pierre continues to be the toilet of South Dakota.

  4. Loren 2022-04-14

    Cummon, folks, it is so close to the election, we should “let the people decide,” ala Johnny Thune and Little Mitch, right? This is just an exercise in public eye wash. After all, SD is finally getting some national recognition! /s

  5. TDC 2022-04-14

    Is the impeachment audio from the House floor going to be published?

  6. TDC 2022-04-14

    Video! Even better.

  7. 96Tears 2022-04-14

    “Ah, your honor? I’d like to object to the state’s attorney or his staff or anyone affiliated formally or informally with law enforcement in these parts to represent the state in its case against my client! They are all biased and bound to say things that make my client and his family and friends feel uncomfortable.”

    This is what law in South Dakota would look like if it was treated as education has been treated with the damn fool Republicans’ legislation on CRT. Just that level of stupid. Little wonder that a knucklehead like Gosch would say, “I just don’t think Vargo is unbiased.”

    But if they could put Vargo on the witness stand, I’d like to know why he broke away from the Ravnsborg prosecution team and whether he sought a homicide charge against Ravnsborg. Again, as many point out, two traffic misdemeanors for killing a pedestrian because of the driver’s reckless neglect with a history of dangerous recklessness behind the wheel is not justice in any way, shape or form. Why wasn’t he tried for homicide?

    Facts revealed during and since the trial all point to homicide. What stops the charge from being brought forward for the first time now? Seriously! No matter what the State Senate does, Ravnsborg still gets away with it and the public good remains unserved.

  8. Tucker 2022-04-14

    Incompetence begets incompetence. Set up.
    The gong show is about to begin. Grab the popcorn and prepare to observe how south Dakota rule of law is really appiied front and center by those “players” in one of the top ten most corrupt states in the union. This is how these players will be exposed. Pay close attention! So glad to be out of that state. I suggest others to leave as well.

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-04-14

    96, maybe Tim Rensch or whoever else Ravnsborg enlists for his defense will try to Darrow prosecutor Vargo and cross-examine him about the evidence he helped Ravnsborg’s classmate Sovell review.

    But Vargo is no aging William Jennings Bryan… and Ravnsborg not only is no Clarence Darrow but is also unlikely to find any Darrow to save his bacon.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-04-14

    Statements about Marty Jackley’s record change not one material fact about the case Vargo can make to convict Jason Ravnsborg and remove him from office.

  11. 96Tears 2022-04-14

    True ’nuff, Cory! I have to admire Lee Schoenbeck’s choices for hearing dates and prosecutors. It will be a case of taking his party’s goofballs in the legislature for a stern session in the woodshed. Lee’s been pretty visible about dealing with the self-absorbed rogues. He’s probably just as sick of the whackos as any of us. Then, to think the state GOP will be meeting the following day in his home court Watertown tells me he’s got a firm grip of the whip.

    As a lifelong student of South Dakota politics, I am a fan. This is what leaders do. Take charge and lead.

    P.S. – Cory, I must say your writing and reporting lately is better than ever.

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-04-14

    Thanks, 96!

    And check my closing sentence: Schoenbeck has chosen what seem to be the latest politically practical dates for the Senate Trial. To hold convention and take nominations for Attorney General before the Senate has resolved impeachment seems unworkable. To hold the trial earlier would hang a big “Kick Me” sign on the backs of Senators who are facing primary challengers. Schoenbeck has delayed the trial 9.5 weeks to give the most time possible before convention for party leaders and public pressure to work on Ravnsborg and for Ravnsborg himself to develop a conscience, resign, and spare Republican Senators the agony of firing their own Attorney General.

  13. 96Tears 2022-04-14

    Brilliant maneuvering by Lee, Cory. Leave nothing to chance. I hope the SDGOP has a peanut gallery for us lookey lou types who enjoy political theater!

  14. Mark Anderson 2022-04-14

    Of course they will convict him. It will make them all look normal and American. It’s a way of covering their own…..

  15. Nick Nemec 2022-04-14

    Cory, I’m interested in the format of the Senate trial. Is there any news on that? Opening statements from both sides? Then prosecution presents their case for removal from office? Then defense arguments? Then rebuttals? Questions from senators? Calling witnesses? Who precides, Chief Justice Jensen or Lt. Governor Rhoden? Senator Schoenbeck has a lot of work ahead just writing the rules, I am anxiously waiting to read them.

  16. Arlo Blundt 2022-04-14

    Schoenbeck has been quoted as saying the impeachment is a “political trial, not a criminal or civil trial.” That would mean anything goes. There are no rules. Blood’s in the water and the sharks have swarmed.

  17. 96Tears 2022-04-14

    Sharks? The damn fool Ravnsborg. Sharks are too good for him. The fool needs to twist in the wind. As the top elected law official, a lasting example of his destruction is the only remedy worth pursuing. His fool supporters need to see an example being made for the good of the order.

  18. Kurt Evans 2022-04-14

    “96Tears” writes:

    As the top elected law official, a lasting example of his destruction is the only remedy worth pursuing. His fool supporters need to see an example being made for the good of the order.

    A similar argument could be made about DPS secretary Craig Price and his ruthless abuses of power.

  19. Arlo Blundt 2022-04-14

    Well…Kurt…my point being that this impeachment thing will be ruthlessly conducted to try to preserve, if that’s possible, some small shred of the Party’s reputation as a civilized organization. I don’t mind Ravnsborg being impeached though I think it better if he is rejected by the Party that put him in power, at the convention. The Party is responsible for this conscienceless egomaniac. The Party needs to be held accountable, not just their elected henchmen.

  20. mike from iowa 2022-04-15

    Two things a shark won’t bite. One is a lawyer. professional courtesy and all that rot. Number Two I won’t say so women commenters won’t scream misogynist at me again.

  21. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-04-15

    96, I’d think the Senate gallery will be packed… but they’ll probably have the guards patting us down for peanuts.

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-04-15

    Nick, I share your interest in learning the details. I haven’t heard them yet.

  23. grudznick 2022-04-15

    Mr. Schoenbeck has schooled the goofballs, insaner than most, repeatedly, and now it is time to spank them with a rod.

  24. grudznick 2022-04-15

    Mr. PP has some news about how Mr. Shoenbeck is going about writing up the rules of procedure for the spanking.

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