PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A South Dakota House committee recommended on Monday that the state’s attorney general face no impeachment charges for his actions surrounding a 2020 fatal car crash.
Gov. Kristi Noem had pushed for Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, a fellow Republican, to be removed from office. But a Republican-controlled House committee voted on party lines to issue a report that found his actions did not merit impeachment. Individual House lawmakers may still bring impeachment charges against Ravnsborg, but the committee’s decision was a major setback for those trying to remove him from office.
The two Democrats on the nine-member committee issued a minority report that recommended he be impeached.
The committee’s announcement prompted tears from the widow of the pedestrian Ravnsborg struck and killed near a rural highway in September 2020. As the committee met behind closed doors for over four hours Friday, Jennifer Boever, the widow of Joseph Boever, watched lawmakers through a window into the conference room, expressing anger at times at lawmakers’ demeanor as they appeared to discuss the report.
The attorney general has cast Joseph Boever’s death as a tragic accident and pleaded no contest last year to a pair of traffic misdemeanors in the crash.
“It’s just really frustrating, and I’m disappointed that Attorney General Ravnsborg can kill a man and get away with it,” said Nick Nemec, Boever’s cousin who has publicly pushed for his impeachment.
Ravnsborg initially reported the crash as a collision with an animal and has said he did not realize he struck a man until he returned to the scene the next day and discovered his body. Criminal investigators doubted that account, but prosecutors said they were unable to prove that Ravnsborg realized he killed a man the night of the crash.
The committee’s 22-page report lays out an argument for why Ravnsborg’s conduct surrounding the crash did not meet grounds for impeachment, which are listed in the state constitution as “drunkenness, crimes, corrupt conduct, malfeasance or misdemeanors in office.”
House Speaker Spencer Gosch, a Republican, argued that the committee’s job was to keep its focus strictly on Ravnsborg’s actions in the crash and whether they were impeachable.
When he was asked by reporters whether he thought Ravnbsorg deserved to stay in office, he said: “Deserves has nothing to do with it. We’ve got to be clear and concise and the factual basis upon what the Constitution says that we can do.”
Other Republicans said they were still left with uncertainty after reviewing the crash investigation.
“I felt that there weren’t enough facts that were clear and convincing, which is the burden of proof that we had to follow,” said Republican Rep. Mike Stevens.
However, Noem, who has positioned herself for a run for higher office, quickly pushed for the House to impeach Ravnsborg when it convenes in two weeks. She took to Twitter to accuse Ravnsborg of lying to investigators and attempting to “cover it up.”
“The question before this committee was, should the Attorney General continue to be the top law enforcement officer in the state of South Dakota. It is clear that he should not be,» she said, adding that she hoped House lawmakers “will do the right thing.”
The committee’s lawmakers have pushed back on Noem’s pressure and listed in their report the ways she has tried to influence their work. The committee “unequivocally condemns” Noem’s attempts to influence the committee, the report states.
Since falling out with the governor after the crash, Ravnsborg has pushed a pair of ethics complaints against Noem to the state’s Government Accountability Board. If Ravnsborg is removed from office, Noem would get to name his replacement.
A spokesman for Ravnsborg did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Democratic Rep. Jamie Smith, who was on the committee, defended its work, but said he believed the attorney general had committed “malfeasance.” The minority report argues that Ravnsborg was not forthcoming to law enforcement officers investigating the crash and “misrepresented” his cell phone use before the crash.
Democratic Rep. Ryan Cwach, another member of the committee, said: “The attorney general hasn’t been able to say what he was distracted by.”
This story has corrected a quote from Republican Rep. Mike Stevens to show that he said “we had to follow» the burden of proof.