PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s suspended attorney general Jason Ravnsborg has broken his silence on the two impeachment articles that have been brought against him.
He has told the South Dakota Senate he’s not guilty, according to Michael Butler, the Sioux Falls lawyer defending him.
“The attorney general, through counsel, has entered a denial of guilt regarding each of the two articles contained in the House resolution,” Butler told KELOLAND News on Tuesday night.
Ravnsborg faced a Wednesday deadline to inform the senators, in writing, whether he was guilty or not-guilty on the two counts brought against him by the state House of Representatives.
The rules adopted by the Senate for the June 21-22 impeachment trial also call on lawyers to provide by June 1 the documents that each side intends to submit. Those documents will be made publicly available on the legislative website. KELOLAND News will report on them as they are posted.
Ravnsborg chose Butler to represent him at the Senate trial. Butler was one of the attorneys who in 2007 defended then-Senator Dan Sutton, a Flandreau Democrat, who eventually was censured by the Senate for sleeping in the same bed as a male legislative page.
For the Ravnsborg impeachment trial, Senator Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, picked Pennington County state’s attorney Mark Vargo and Clay County state’s attorney Alexis Tracy as the prosecutors.
June 1 is also the deadline for attorneys to submit the names of witnesses they plan to subpoena to testify at the trial. Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden will be the presiding officer for the trial and will issue any subpoenas in the name of the Senate. No depositions or other pre-trial discovery are permitted. The House has never before issued articles of impeachment against a statewide elected official.
The South Dakota Constitution requires a two-thirds majority of senators –24 of 35 — for conviction. Representatives voted 36-30 — exactly the minimum required by the constitution — on April 12 to impeach Ravnsborg on two counts.
Ravnsborg was driving his private car back to Pierre from a Republican political event in Redfield on Saturday night, September 12, 2020, when he struck and killed pedestrian Joe Boever of Highmore. Boever was walking along the north shoulder of US 14, facing traffic, when Ravnsborg’s car hit him.
Ravnsborg called 911, said he didn’t know what he had hit, and drove the Hyde County sheriff’s personal vehicle back to Pierre. Ravnsborg returned to Highmore on Sunday morning and discovered Boever’s body in the grass just off the shoulder.
Ravnsborg had his defense attorney plead no-contest to an illegal lane change for driving on the shoulder and to illegal use of an electronic device while operating a motor vehicle. Ravnsborg never appeared in court on the charges.
The first count of the House impeachment resolution calls for Ravnsborg to be removed from office for causing the death of Boever, including the crime of an illegal lane change.
The second count calls for Ravnsborg to be removed from office because he allegedly misrepresented what had happened when he spoke to the 911 dispatcher after the crash and when he subsequently spoke to law enforcement investigators and the public. The second count also alleges that he used assets of his state office to benefit himself personally with respect to the investigation into his criminal activity.
A long closed-door meeting of House Republicans preceded the open debate on the House floor on whether the Republican attorney general should be impeached. The audio of those House floor arguments can be heard here. No one spoke publicly in Ravnsborg’s defense.
Representative Will Mortenseon, R-Pierre, sponsored the impeachment resolution. The first-term legislator, a lawyer, also sponsored an impeachment resolution last year. The House speaker, Representative Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham, amended the first Mortenson resolution to say the House “may evaluate” whether articles of impeachment are necessary. The House adopted the Gosch version on a vote of 57-11.
House Republican leader Kent Peterson, R-Salem, followed with a resolution on November 9 calling for the House to appoint a select committee on investigation. Mortenson amended the resolution to ensure that all 70 House members had access to all information gathered by the committee.
The House committee’s majority of seven Republicans declined to recommend impeachment in its final report. The committee’s two Democrats issued a minority report calling for articles of impeachment for malfeasance. The committee posted the information it officially considered.
The Senate will vote on each article of impeachment. If two-thirds of the Senate sustains the House accusation that Ravnsborg is guilty of one or both articles, the Senate then would take a second vote on whether Ravnsborg “shall be disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the state.” Permanently barring Ravnsborg would take a two-thirds majority as well.