PIERRE, S.D. — Three South Dakota lawmakers have filed two articles of impeachment against the state's attorney general, Jason Ravnsborg, saying the state's top prosecutor must be forced from office over his "crimes or misdemeanors" related to a fatal collision with a pedestrian along U.S. Highway 14 last fall.
Freshman Rep. Will Mortenson, a Pierre Republican who represents Hyde County, where the fatal collision occurred, is the resolution's prime sponsor and said he has "no axe to grind" with Ravnsborg but believes the car crash — and subsequent criminal charges filed last week — represent "grave circumstances" calling for impeachment.
"In this case, a state official caused the death of a citizen and failed to comport himself in the standards we expect following the incident," Mortenson said in a statement on Tuesday, Feb. 23.
In an interview Tuesday, prior to release of the impeachment articles, Smith told Forum News Service he hoped Ravnsborg would resign.
"The governor has requested that and I would hope that the attorney general would do that," said Smith. "We need an attorney general who can focus on his or her job, and at this point I think there's just too much to overcome to do that successfully."
Earlier Tuesday, Gov. Kristi Noem issued her own statement, calling on Ravnsborg to resign, citing the three misdemeanor charges filed last week by the Sully County Assistant State's Attorney.
Mike Deaver, a spokesman for Ravnsborg, denied speculation that the attorney general would hand in his resignation in an email to FNS.
"At this point he is not resigning," Deaver said in an email.
Last Thursday, an assistant state's attorney from Sully County charged Ravnsborg with three misdemeanor charges for careless driving, illegally changing lanes, and using a cellphone in the collision west of Highmore, S.D., that led to the death of Joseph Boever, 55, of Highmore. The AG's cellphone was locked at the time of the impact, said investigators, though they've been unable to determine why he was "distracted."
According to South Dakota's constitution, similar to the federal government, a simple majority in the House can impeach a constitutional officer, and the state senate holds a trial. A two-thirds vote by the elected members of the upper chamber is needed to convict the officer.
The grounds for impeachment include "drunkenness, crimes, corrupt conduct, or malfeasance or misdemeanor in office." The state constitution also stipulates a trial can't happen until "at least twenty days" after the officer has been served a copy of the impeachment, meaning any trial would need to convene in March at the earliest.
It is believed this is the first time in state history lawmakers have issued articles of impeachment against a South Dakota elected official. In 2004, U.S. Rep. Bill Janklow, a former governor, resigned his seat after he was convicted of manslaughter in the automobile death of a Minnesota man.
At a news conference in the statehouse's rotunda following the conclusion of Tuesday's House session, Mortenson said the impeachment articles addressed the "crash itself" as well as Ravnsborg's "conduct" after hitting Boever on the rural road. Mortenson, who was flanked by co-sponsors Smith and Peterson, noted that Boever was his constituent.
"I think he (Ravnsborg) has a special duty to protect the people and their laws," Mortenson said. "And I think that (his) actions ... fell short of that duty."
He did not comment on whether he believes the articles of impeachment would garner enough votes in the House to pass, or the Senate to convict. But the presence of House Majority Leader Peterson suggested the actions have the backing of party officials in South Dakota.
"This is for the people of South Dakota," Peterson said. "We stand by the provisions that are in place in the constitution."
On Tuesday evening, the South Dakota Department of Public Safety released two videos showing North Dakota investigators appearing skeptical about Ravnsborg's claims that he did not know he'd hit a man on the roadside that night. At one point, an investigator tells the Attorney General that a pair of glasses belonging to the victim ended up inside Ravnsborg's car.
"They're Joe's glasses," said the investigator.
"I wondered about that," replied Ravnsborg.
"So that means his face came through your windshield," said the investigator.
Ravnsborg maintained he did not know he'd hit a human until the next morning. In another noteworthy exchange, investigators pressed the Attorney General about whether he'd seen a lit flashlight on Boever's body when he and Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek walked the roadside after the crash.
"I want you to be real honest right now," said the investigator. "Did you see the flashlight he was carrying?"
"No," responded Ravnsborg. "No flashlight."