The South Dakota Senate voted this afternoon to convict Jason Ravnsborg on both articles of impeachment, to remove Ravnsborg from office immediately, and to disqualify Ravnsborg from holding any public office in South Dakota.
The Senate convened at 8 a.m. today to begin its trial. Co-prosecutor and Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy offered opening arguments for the prosecution. Washington DC lawyer, Tulane law instructor, and impeachment expert offered opening arguments for Ravnsborg on legal theories and precedents pertaining to impeachment; Sioux Falls attorney Michael Butler followed with particulars of the case.
The prosecution called five of its eight anticipated witnesses, four of them investigators into the fatal crash of September 12, 2020, in which distracted driver Ravnsborg killed pedestrian Joseph Boever on the shoulder of Highway 14 just west of Highmore. The fifth, former Division of Criminal Investigation agent Brent Gromer, testified to the unusual, uncomfortable, and, it seemed, unethical attempt Ravnsborg made three days after the accident to get information from Gromer about what evidence investigators might be able to pull from his phone.
Jason Ravnsborg was in the Senate chamber, at the north table with his defense attorneys, through all of the prosecution’s testimony and his attorney Butler’s cross-examination of those witnesses. But when the prosecution rested at 2:07 p.m. this afternoon, Ravnsborg did not take the stand. In response to Senate President and Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden’s prompt, Butler said simply, “We have no witnesses to present, so we rest.”
Senators did avail themselves of the opportunity to ask questions. The most remarkable came from Senator R. Blake Curd, a doctor from Sioux Falls, who seemed to offer the defense a lifeline by asking North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Arnie Rummel if it was possible that everyone was telling the truth and that Ravnsborg could have suffered dissociative amnesia, a condition for which Dr. Curd read a definition involving victims of extreme stress and trauma forgetting details of the triggering events. Agent Rummel said he highly doubts that and pointed to the fact that Ravnsborg’s memory gaps seemed to pertain only to facts that would put blame on him. Rummel also noted that the definition Curd read mentioned “victims” but that Ravnsborg was not the victim here but the suspect. When Curd turned his question about dissociative amnesia to the defense, President Rhoden, who has not previously distinguished himself as a legal scholar, interjected with legal acumen that it perhaps was not a Senator’s place to offer Ravnsborg and his attorneys a legal defense that they had not offered in their arguments. Butler mildly said witnesses can recall things differently. For the prosecution, Tracy said simply that Ravnsborg didn’t have amnesia; he was given multiple opportunities to tell the truth, and he avoided telling the truth when the truth would reflect poorly on him.
Co-prosecutor and Pennington County State’s Attorney offered the prosecution’s closing statement. “By deed and by word,” Vargo began, “Jason Ravnsborg has forfeited his right to be attorney general of this great state.” He said the defense’s characterization of actions that led to a man’s death as “only a misdemeanor” was offensive and misleading. Vargo emphasized that Ravnsborg lied repeatedly, even in his use of an “On My Way” app on his personal phone to win rewards for not using his phone while driving even has he called and checked email and the Web on his work phone as he drove. “How honest is that?… How representative of South Dakota values is it to be lying for pennies per mile?” [I’m not convinced that last quote was strictly legally relevant, but as character indictment, it was pithy and deadly.]
Vargo played a video of Ravnsborg reversing his story about seeing a man at the scene of the crash and said, “We’ve heard better lies from five year olds. Vargo played a sequence of clips showing Ravnsborg’s evolving story to police about whether he used his cell phone while driving—from no, to checking the time, to checking headlines in the news, to “Do I look at that stuff, yes, I do it all the time.”
Vargo briefly addressed the impeachment theory and precedent raised by Garber in the opening statements, then turned back to the specifics or Ravnsborg’s impeachable offenses. “Historically and in this case, Jason Ravnsborg uses his office to get out of trouble.” Turning the question of whether Ravnsborg should be disqualified from holding office in the future, Vargo cited Ravnsborg’s statement in the police interview that he wouldn’t do anything different. “How about you just look where you’re going?” Vargo said, “That would be different, and Joe Boever would still be alive.” Vargo said Ravnsborg made clear with his statement that he was thinking only about himself. Vargo ended by saying that acquitting Ravsnborg would endorse the idea that some officials are too powerful to be held accountable and that elected officials are immune to the laws that the Legislature passes.
Professor Garber returned to the podium to repeat his impeachment theories. Stunningly, his closing statement seemed to add no new weight or detail to the defense’s position. Worse, it did not seem to offer any direct response to arguments or testimony during the trial itself. It sounded like Ravnsborg paid Garber to come all the way to South Dakota to save his bacon, and all he got were two canned speeches, with Garber apparently paying as little attention to the course of the trial today as Ravnsborg paid to Highway 14 the night he killed Joe Boever.
Butler offered a somewhat more responsive closing argument, challenging the contention that Ravnsborg committed any crime that fatal night in the course of carrying our any official duties. Butler said no serious person would think that identifying oneself as attorney general in a 911 call constitutes trying to use one’s office for personal benefit. Butler cast doubt on the contention that Ravnsborg had to have seen the body in the ditch in the minutes after the accident because if was dark and cloudy. He questioned Agent Rummel’s assertions about Ravnsborg’s apparent lack of credibility. Butler closed by warning Senators that voting to remove Ravnsborg from office might create a moment of good feelings, but such a feeling would not survive history if the Senate voted to impeach without the clear and convincing support of law and evidence.
The Senate debate on the articles of impeachment was brief. The Senate debated and voted on each article of impeachment separately, Article 1 on the crimes causing Joseph Boever’s death, Article 2 on malfeasance in office afterward. Senator Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown led the debate on Article 1 with an impassioned call for Senators to imagine someone they know being run down and killed the way Jospeh Boever died at Jason Ravnsborg’s hands. Schoenbeck cussed Ravnsborg out, saying with a gesture to the defense table and the podium just a few steps away that if Ravnsborg had wanted to vigorously defend himself, “There’s a mic right there, and that’s a damn short walk.” Schoenbeck noted with disdain that even as he sat in the Chamber, Ravnsborg chose “not share with us what the hell he was doing killing that person.”
Senator Schoenbeck was followed by speeches from Senators Troy Heinert, Gary Cammack, Jessica Castleberry, Helene Duhamel, Michael Diedrich, and David Wheeler in support or conviction. Unlike the House, where no members stood to justify their opposition to impeachment before casting their nays, two Senators, Arthur Rusch and Tim Johns, stood to argue the Senate lacked grounds for impeachment. Both are former circuit court judges, and such legal arguments coming from Rusch and Johns could have carried great weight.
Conviction required a two-thirds vote, 24 members. 24 members voted to convict on Article 1. The nays were nine Republicans (Johns, Rusch, Greenfield, Klumb, Kolbeck, Maher, Novstrup, Steinhauer, and Symens).
Two members, Senator Julie Frye-Mueller and Red Dawn Foster, were absent from the trial. Foster, a Democrat, would almost have assuredly have voted to convict. Had just one other Republican voted no, Foster’s absence would have acquitted Ravnsborg on Article 1.
That precarious question did not matter on Article 2. Rusch contended he saw enough evidence that Ravnsborg misused his office, in identifying himself as Attorney General in his 911 call after the accident and other ways, to justify conviction. Johns maintained the evidence on Article 2 was only “speculation and opinions” and not strong enough to remove an elected official. Senator Duhamel rose to say honesty matters, and Senator Wheeler said Ravnsborg’s lies violated his duty as our chief law enforcement officer. On Article 2, 31 Senators voted to convict and remove Ravnsborg from office. (Official roll call isn’t posted yet, but I think the only two nays I heard came from Johns and Novstrup.)
Only two Senators would have voted to keep Ravnsborg in office.
The Senate then punctuated its verdict by voting unanimously, on each article, to disqualify Jason Ravnsborg from ever holding “any office of trust or profit under the state.”
With those votes, the Senate removed Jason Ravnsborg from office and ensured he never will hold office in this state again.
Jason Ravnsborg is the first elected official in South Dakota ever impeached, convicted, and removed from office by the Legislature. Governor Kristi Noem now has the opportunity to appoint a replacement for Ravnsborg to carry out the duties of Attorney General until a new A.G. is inaugurated come January.