Bob Mercer reports that Senator Julie Frye-Mueller (R-30/Rapid City) signed and helped circulate a petition that called for Attorney General Mark Vargo to permanently resign from his position as Pennington County State’s Attorney. Vargo took temporary leave of that position at the end of June when Governor Kristi Noem appointed him to fill the vacancy created by the conviction and removal from office of impeached killer Jason Ravnsborg, which conviction Vargo and co-prosecutor Alexis Tracy secured in the historic impeachment trial before the Senate on June 21.
The Pennington County Commission rejected that petition on a 3–1 vote July 19, and rightfully so: the petition was based on extralegal hand-wringing about non-existent conflicts of interest. Frye-Mueller and lead petition Tonchi Weaver threw at the commission a hodgepodge of highlighted statutes (original document available in the July 19 commission agenda packet), but not one of the statutes cited explained how any conflict of interest exists between two positions that Vargo does not and will not occupy at the same time. Nor did the statutes cited by Vargo’s enemies indicate that the county commission has any authority to remove and permanently replace the state’s attorney. To the contrary, Vargo’s opponents cite statutes that give the county (SDCL 3-4-9) and the circuit court (SDCL 7-16-2) authority to name temporary replacements for an absent state’s attorney, but statute explicitly forbids the court from making permanent appointments, and the county statute says its temporary appointment lasts “until the member or officer is able to fulfill the requirements of office,” which is exactly the scenario Vargo and the county have agreed to: once Marty Jackley is inaugurated come January, Vargo comes back to Rapid City to complete his own elected term.
Attorney General Vargo responded preëmptively to the petition with his own letter to the commission (added to the agenda packet July 18). In that letter, Vargo asserted that, far from creating a conflict of interest, serving briefly as Attorney General would help him come back and be a better State’s Attorney and serve Pennington County’s interest in recruiting lawyers:
I am proud to be part of a great team at the AG’s office and a great team at Pennington County. I believe that my work over the next six months will make me a better State’s Attorney when I return, with greater knowledge of the inner workings of the AG’s office. I also believe that the reach that I will have over this time frame will also enable Pennington County to have great reach in recruiting and retaining attorneys, which is one of the greatest challenges that we anticipate over the coming years. I get a fair amount of grief from my fellow State’s Attorneys about my alleged “relentless” recruitment efforts. All I can say to them is: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
I appreciate the Commission’s continued support. The next six months will allow me to work for the good of the people of South Dakota while protecting and promoting our home, Pennington County [Attorney General Mark Vargo, letter to Pennington County Commission, July 19 2021 agenda packet, 2022.07.18].
Ha! If anyone should be angling to stop Vargo from returning to his office in Rapid City, it’s not Weaver and other Pennington County residents; it’s state’s attorneys from everywhere else in South Dakota who see Vargo promising to use the connections he makes in his six months in statewide office to recruit all the good lawyers to come work with him in Rapid City in 2023!
As Mercer notes, Senator Frye-Mueller isn’t the only lawmaker whose antipathy toward Vargo and his removal of their pal Ravnsborg have produced an inability to read basic law. District 35 Representatives Tony Randolph and Tina Mullally and District 33 Representative Phil Jensen also signed the anti-Vargo petition.
Randolph and Jensen, like Frye-Mueller, resisted calling a Special Session to impeach Ravnsborg. Unlike Frye-Mueller, who skipped the Senate trial and conviction vote for her brother-in-law’s funeral, Randolph, Jensen, and Mullaly voted against impeaching Ravnsborg.
Bonus Petition Problem: Weaver and Frye-Mueller signed petition sheets that they circulated, which is, of course, a no-no, since a circulator cannot witness her own signature.