Impeachment prosecutors examine Ravnsborg’s abuse of title as defense touts cooperation with investigators
Prosecutors hope to establish a pattern of Ravnsborg’s actions since the night of the crash as well as through the abuse of his title and position would leave lawmakers with no choice but to impeach.
PIERRE, S.D. — The historic impeachment trial of South Dakota’s Attorney General kicked off Tuesday morning in Pierre, as prosecutors make the case that Jason Ravnsborg’s choices in the moments leading up to as well as in the months after a 2020 fatal crash that killed Joe Boever, a pedestrian, dictated the course of his career.
With Ravnsborg — who was impeached by the state’s House of Representatives in April — present for the first of two days expected in the impeachment trial, Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy kicked off the trial for the prosecution by reminding the 33 present Senators why they’re gathered in special session.
“The night of Sept. 12, 2020, was otherwise an ordinary day … It was the response to those moments and the failed opportunities to do the right thing by Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg that bring us here today,” Tracy said. “A man lost his life due to the Attorney General’s distracted driving, and in the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months after … the Attorney General had countless chances to do the right thing, but instead he’s chosen not to.”
After detailing the “life-altering” events of crash, Tracy told Senators that through witness testimony, a pattern of Ravnsborg’s actions since the night of the crash as well as through the abuse of his title and position would leave lawmakers with no choice but to impeach.
"While the investigation was pending, Attorney General Ravnsborg continued to use his position as attorney general during the investigation to buy time for turning his work phone over, to get blood drawn, to question his employee, Brent Gromer, to know what [North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation] investigators will find on his phone" Tracy said. "The evidence will show that wrongdoing."
Defense attorney Michael Butler, a private lawyer hired by Ravnsborg, used his opening argument to examine the specific wording of the articles of impeachment.
“Focusing on House Resolution 7002, Article 1, first, we must consider that you must find clear and convincing evidence that says Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg committed crimes causing the death of Joseph Boever,” Butler said. “There has been no finding that Mr. Ravnsborg was criminally culpable for the death of Mr. Boever. … I respectfully submit to this body that Article 1 is not complicated. It requires a vote to not sustain an article of impeachment.”
Butler added that charging decisions from the fatal crash resulted in common traffic offenses, and is insufficient for the removal of a constitutional officer, before moving on to the second article of impeachment, regarding malfeasance in office.
“If you want to assume for a minute that that [malfeasance] was done in office, which is for the sake of discussion, I ask that you listen to the 911 call. He did identify himself as the Attorney General, said he struck something, was asked if it was a deer, and said it could’ve been,” Butler said. “According to government lawyers, this somehow is a misuse of his power. Folks, he called 911. I admit that the crash that occurred was traumatic. The government lawyers would have you judge him now, in hindsight, but not on what occurred in the moment.”
In addition to Butler, roughly half of the defense’s opening argument included Ross Garber, an attorney who has represented multiple elected officials throughout impeachment proceedings.
“As you know, no elected official in South Dakota has been removed from office … in the entire history of the state. Not a single federal executive branch official in the entire history of the United States has been removed through the impeachment process,” Garber said. “I found no record of any attorney general, in any place in the country, being impeached and removed, and I found no situation in the modern era, certainly, where an elected official has been removed for conduct not integral to performance of their office.”
At the conclusion of opening arguments from both parties, the state began calling witnesses to the stand to testify before the Senate for the first time — though most have testified before lawmakers involved in the House Select Committee on Investigation.
Over the next eight hours of trial, prosecutors are set to call forward multiple North Dakota investigators as well as South Dakota Highway Patrol troopers and agents of the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation.
No witnesses are scheduled to be called by the defense.
After witness testimony has concluded, an unspecified period of time is allotted for Senators to ask questions, before heading into closing remarks from both parties.
Rules for the trial dictate that Tuesday’s portion of the trial must adjourn no later than 8 p.m., regardless of how much progress has been made in the trial. Any unfinished business will resume in the Senate chambers on Wednesday morning.