PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The Sioux Falls billboard ads targeting some legislators on the Jason Ravnsborg impeachment panel that went up in mid-March came after at least some — and perhaps all — of the members had made up their minds whether to recommend he be removed as South Dakota attorney general.
The House Select Committee on Investigation officially voted 6-2 Monday night against recommending his impeachment. The 70-member House of Representatives is scheduled to reconvene April 12 to decide on impeachment.
But the panel’s Democrats indicated to reporters in a roundabout way Monday that the billboards ultimately didn’t make a difference because the anti-Ravnsborg messages came after the committee’s meeting on March 10, when the group had secretly but unofficially split over recommending impeachment.
The official report included a five-page addendum that pushed back against interference from Republican Governor Kristi Noem, who had repeatedly urged resignation and then impeachment for the Republican attorney general.
On Tuesday, an affidavit seeking a state investigation into who paid for the billboard ads was filed by the committee chair, House Speaker Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham, and one of the members, House Democrat leader Jamie Smith of Sioux Falls.
Smith is running for governor against the winner of the Republican primary between Noem and another committee member, Representative Steven Haugaard of Sioux Falls.
Before the billboards, the panel was trying to learn who paid an Ohio telemarketing firm that was calling South Dakota households and offering to connect them with committee members.
Prior to that, the governor and her state Department of Public Safety had released considerable amounts of investigation information, while Ravnsborg was still facing misdemeanor charges related to the 2020 death of pedestrian Joe Boever, who was hit by the car Ravnsborg was driving.
Ravnsborg told the 911 dispatcher he didn’t know what he had hit that night. He found Boever’s body the next morning. The Hyde County sheriff who met him at the scene has since died.
Retired Circuit Judge John Brown ordered that the information, including videos of Ravnsborg interviews in the weeks after the crash, be taken down from the DPS website.
“The governor didn’t make it any easier for any of us,” Smith told reporters, as he stood next to Representative Ryan Cwach of Yankton, the other Democrat on the nine-man committee.
“I know that both Ryan and myself put those, that distraction aside and made our decisions. Some of the things that happened actually happened after we’d actually made our decision, so that didn’t influence our decision, but it was very frustrating to have that going on in the background,” Smith continued. “It didn’t help any of this.”
KELOLAND News asked Smith and Cwach when they reached their decisions to recommend impeachment.
“You know the final vote happened today but, we’ve been working on a minority report for a couple — week, about a week perhaps?” Smith said.
He turned to Cwach, who said, “We had our last meeting, we didn’t take an official vote, but we were trying to tell where people were at on it.”
Smith added, “So about two weeks ago, Ryan and I had the feeling and we’re not going, we knew that we were not going to go along with not-impeach him.”
State law allows public bodies to meet in closed-door executive sessions under specific circumstances. One is discussing “the qualifications, competence, performance, character or fitness of any public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee.” That was the case on March 10, according to Gosch.
“The select committee had begun conversations as to what the report needed to look (like), but no one voted on their position at that time,” Gosch said Tuesday. Asked about the comments by Smith and Cwach, Gosch said, “Any discussion in those meetings was under executive session and therefore are not public.”
Haugaard, who said he also signed an affidavit seeking an official investigation of the billboard funding, told KELOLAND News that the committee members’ positions seemed to be developing as the evidence was reviewed.
“A general viewpoint was coming into focus at our previous meeting,” Haugaard said. “Everyone still had time to review the evidence and clarify any additional concerns over the past weeks. We then had additional discussions and made necessary revisions to our final document last night.”
South Dakota Secretary of State Steve Barnett has forwarded affidavits to the attorney general’s office by another committee member, Representative Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, and a fifth legislator who doesn’t serve on the committee but said he has spoken with Ravnsborg about the crash, Representative Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish.
Tim Bormann, the attorney general’s chief of staff, told KELOLAND News in an email Tuesday, “A decision has not been made on whether this will be handled internally or if it will be handled by an outside entity. Once that decision is made as to whether this is handled internally or externally, the next decision will be the process for investigation and/or enforcement of the issue.”
Bormann said the answer would come from whoever is handling the investigation. He said the complaints would be looked at within the context of a state law that allows the secretary of state commence a contested case under state administrative procedure or impose a civil penalty. The same law also says, “The secretary of state may refer the complaint to the Division of Criminal Investigation for an investigation pursuant to chapter 23-3 and shall notify the subject of the affidavit of the referral by certified mail.”
“Any answers as to alleged violations and/or maximum penalties would be forthcoming once it is determined who will be handling the case,” Bormann said.