PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A state senator who was excused from the Legislature’s decisions that removed Jason Ravnsborg as South Dakota attorney general has since been agitating against his temporary replacement.

Senator Julie Frye-Mueller, R-Rapid City, signed and helped circulate a petition calling for the resignation of Mark Vargo as Pennington County state’s attorney, after Vargo accepted the governor’s appointment to fill the attorney general vacancy.

The petition also asked the Pennington County Commission to appoint a permanent replacement for Vargo. His term as the county’s elected state’s attorney expires December 31, 2024.

Frye-Mueller was among a group of current and former legislators from Pennington County whose names and signatures were on the petitions.

“I agreed with it, that’s why I signed onto it,” Frye-Mueller told KELOLAND News on Thursday.

The funeral of her brother-in-law was on the same day as the Senate trial. She declined to answer Thursday how she would have voted on Ravnsborg had she been at the Capitol.

The anti-Vargo petition drive, led by conservative activist Tonchi Weaver of Rapid City, alleged that Vargo has a conflict of interest because, as attorney general, he now has oversight and authority over all state’s attorneys in South Dakota.

The Pennington County Commission considered the matter at its July 19 meeting and voted 3-1 to deny the request.

Other legislators who signed the petition calling for Vargo’s removal as state’s attorney were Representative Tony Randolph, R-Rapid City; Representative Tina Mulally, R-Rapid City; and Representative Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City. All three voted against impeaching Ravnsborg.

Former legislators Bill Napoli, R-Rapid City, and Blaine Campbell, R-Rapid City, also signed the petitions. Altogether more than 100 people put their names on.

Vargo was one of two prosecutors who argued at the Senate proceeding on June 21 that Ravnsborg should no longer be allowed to hold office. Senators decided to remove Ravnsborg later that day.

Two of the 35 senators were excused: Frye-Mueller and Red Dawn Foster, D-Pine Ridge. Senators voted 24-9 and 33-0 to convict Ravnsborg and 33-0 to permanently bar him from public office.

Four days later, on June 25, one of Ravnsborg’s appointees, state Division of Criminal Investigation director David Natvig, narrowly lost the GOP nomination for attorney general to Marty Jackley, a former attorney general, at the South Dakota Republican Party state convention.

On June 27, Governor Kristi Noem, who had repeatedly called for Ravnsborg’s resignation, privately asked Vargo to take a leave of absence from his elected post as Pennington County state’s attorney and fill the attorney general vacancy through Friday, January 6, 2023.

Jackley joined Noem in the request to Vargo.

Noem had defeated Jackley for the Republican nomination for governor four years earlier, but they chose to endorse each other’s candidacies this year.

The governor announced the appointment of Vargo the next day on June 28. Lara Roetzel, the chief deputy state’s attorney, was sworn into office as Pennington County’s acting state’s attorney that same morning.

Vargo, in one of his first actions as attorney general, then fired Natvig and another Ravnsborg appointee, chief of staff Tim Bormann.

The state House of Representatives had voted to impeach Ravnsborg 36-31 in April 12 in connection with the September 12, 2020, death of pedestrian Joe Boever at the west edge of Highmore.

The car Ravnsborg was driving that night struck and killed Boever, who investigators determined was walking on the shoulder of US 14 toward traffic and carrying a small flashlight in the dark.

After the House vote, Ravnsborg was suspended from official duties until the conclusion of the Senate trial.

The governor on July 14 sent a letter by email to the Pennington County Commission defending her choice of Vargo. It said, in part, “I would not have made this request to Mr. Vargo if it was not important to the entire state, including the County, to have a man of Mr. Vargo’s integrity leading the Attorney General’s office.” She also expressed confidence in Roetzel as the acting state’s attorney, saying the county was “in good hands.”

Vargo too sent a letter to the commission. It read, in part:

“Accepting the request of Governor Noem to serve as Attorney General was not a decision that I made lightly. I did it because I felt that it was important to serve in the area of greatest need. I did so after consulting with Mr. Jackley, who at present has no opponent for the AG race in November and who joined the Governor in asking me to take on the task of restoring faith in the Ag’s office. I did so after talking to Lara and Jay (Alderman.) And I did so with the support of my wife, who supported me in accepting the appointment, but also predicted that Mr. Ravnsborg’s apologists would likely use my service as a way to attempt to lash out against me despite the absence of any legal mechanism for recall or removal.”

A state law prohibits a candidate in most cases from seeking two elected offices at the same time. The petition didn’t directly address the question of holding two public offices at the same time.

Vargo’s letter, which was in response to an email he said was forwarded “through the Wingnuts political group,” added, “I could certainly wish that there could have been a way for this to have happened more slowly, but as has been reported by the press, this was a decision that the Governor had to make immediately in order for the AG’s office to have any ability to perform its functions.”